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Jacob Riis

Text by Ansel Adams, preface to "Jacob A. Riis, Photographer & Citizen"

"To my list of intense experiences in photography, including a preview of some Strand negatives in Taos, the Portraits and Shells of Weston, the Equivalents of Stieglitz and the magnificent human affirmation of Dorothea Lange, I must add the Riis-Alland prints displayed at the Museum of the City of New York.

"For me these are magnificent achievements in the field of humanistic photography ... I know of no contemporary work of this general character which gives such an impression of competence, integrity and intensity.

"I find it difficult to explain my convictions. I am not thinking of Riis's achievement in terms of comparative equipment and materials (that is a line worn thin by now). Obviously, Alland's beautiful prints, by exalting the physical qualities of Riis's work, intensify their expressive content. The factual and dated content of subject has definite historic importance, but the larger content lies in Riis's expression of people in misery, want and squalor. These people live again for you in the print - as intensely as when their images were captured on the old dry plates of ninety years ago. Their comrades in poverty and suppression live here today, in this city - in all the cities of the world. I have thought much about this intense, living quality in Riis's work; I think I have an explanation of its compelling power. It is because in viewing those prints I find myself identified with the people photographed. I am walking in their alleys, standing in their rooms and sheds and workshops, looking in and out of their windows. And they in turn seem to be aware of me.

"In so much photography of people in our time I feel that the photographer is cloaked in invisibility; he captures a fragment of the world without identifying himself with his immediate environment. Perhaps he thinks he achieves identification - but only the spectator of his photograph can be sure. He seems to avoid detection; no one in his pictures seems to recognize him or acknowledge his presence. It is a peephole - or keyhole - view point: the sly capturing of the private moment, the time-slice of turmoil, the "observation" of the little man who wasn't there!

"I remember a photographic educator who violently condemned any picture in which the subject "mugged" the camera. His concept of a picture was suspiciously reminiscent of an aquarium thronged with weary, uninterested fish, or a stage of posturing puppets. 1 fortified myself by recalling Strand's wonderful Mexican photographs; in many of these the subjects are looking at you - you are there with them, you may almost speak to them. Because of this intimacy, reality is magically intensified, another dimension of response is added to the dimensions of statement. Do I hear the word "empathy"?

"Many of the people shown in Riis's work looked at the camera and the photographer at the moment of exposure. They did not realize that they were looking at you and me and all humanity for ages of time. Their postures and groupings are not contrived; the moment of exposure was selected more for the intention of truth than for the intention of effect.

"It would be difficult to imagine these photographs as single images apart from the great matrix of Riis's project. Riis's photographs, books, articles and lectures exist as a unit statement, a consuming lifework. This is what photography should be - an integrated creative and constructive statement, not a series of disconnected and unorganized images of more or less superficial appeal. The photographer when "expressing himself" or reflecting an ideological or purely aesthetic line is, in effect, shadowboxing with reality. The larger aspects of reality humanity, nature in implied or direct relation to humanity - cannot be compressed into stylized, intellectual patterns. Statements which are built upon and express truthful intention will seldom be ineffective. The mechanics of communication partake of truth when truth is the objective. The techniques of the pictorialist and the esoteric abstractionist often reflect the weakness of their concept and expression. In Riis's work I am never conscious of technique, methods or means - only of appropriate and efficient mechanical necessities. As revealed in the Alland prints, the quality of his flash illumination is extraordinary; the plastic shadow-edges, modulations and textures of flesh, the balance of interior flash and exterior daylight - what contemporary work really exceeds it in competence and integrity?"


 


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