The Medium and the Message: Sara Blair's How the Other Half Looks

Reviewed by Aaron Shkuda

Visitors to Seward Park on Manhattan’s Lower East Side from July 2018 through July 2019 can view “Mom-and-Pops of the L.E.S.,” a project by the photographers James and Karla Murray. The installation is a trompe l'oeil storefront, a cube containing four large-format prints of the couple’s photographs of the vanishing businesses of the Lower East Side. These include a delicatessen modeled on the façade of the still-extant Katz’s, but meant to stand in for any of the shuttered Jewish delis across the city. This project, with its mix of Lower East Side iconography, nostalgia for a lost immigrant New York, and the complicated, multiply-mediated encounters it inspires, is an appropriate companion to Sara Blair’s powerful and compelling new book, How the Other Half Looks: The Lower East Side and the Afterlives of Images.

Blair examines how a series of iconic photographers, writers, and filmmakers have used the streets of the Lower East Side (and sometimes the neighboring Five Points and Bowery) to make sense of “the threats and promise of American modernity.” While these representations of New York were critical to shaping understandings of the modern city, they were equally essential for shaping “the image repertoire of modern America” and as “testing grounds for technologies and practices for observing American social life.”

As the full title implies, Blair’s book focuses on the afterlives of images and of the lasting impact of Jacob Riis’ seminal photojournalistic work How the Other Half Lives (1890). How the Other Half Looks demonstrates how each subsequent depiction of the Lower East Side built on techniques and iconic images from earlier works, often across disciplines. The heart of Blair’s narrative begins with the development of halftone screening in 1880, which allowed photographs to be reproduced and disseminated on a wide scale. Halftones created “a radically new kind of experience: encounter, within print culture, with ‘what was actually supposed to have existed.’” More than any other contemporary photographer, Riis made use of the “illusion of presence” created by the halftone to bring a “surfeit of visual information” to his viewer, enabling him to confront them with irrefutable evidence of the social problems of the Lower East Side. How the Other Half Lives was the first book in the United States to make use of the halftone on a wide scale.

The visual language and methods of encountering the city in Riis’ photographs are critical to understanding subsequent depictions of the Lower East Side. Despite the ostensibly documentary and photomechanical nature of photography, Riis’ images relied on techniques of enhancement and created new sets of visual conventions. The most central of these was Riis’ use of flash technology to shoot photographs at night and in dark tenement rooms. This technique enhanced an already-existing tendency in his work (and of photography as a whole) to present subjects in a state of arrest. The figures in his photographs “are immobile, flash blinded, huddled against the glare of charitable discipline and the law.” As a result, “they appear unequal to the very modernity they themselves – as new masses, tenement-dwellers, street hustlers, organized laborers, sweatshop workers, alternative culture-makers – are bringing into being.”

In turn, the concept of arrest shaped literary portrayals of the Lower East Side, and allowed for turn-of-the-century authors to make contrasting claims about the place of immigrants in the modern city. The immigrant characters in Stephen Crane’s novel Maggie: A Girl of the Streets (1893) exhibit a “stuckness in place” similar to the figures in Riis’ photography. Maggie and her fellow slum dwellers lives are predetermined, their characters and social beings are fixed, and they are set apart from the dynamism and temporality of the modern city. In contrast, Abraham Cahan’s Yekl: A Tale of the New York Ghetto (1896), plays with the jumble of languages in the Lower East Side to create a mode of arrest in its readers. The Yiddish-speaking Jewish immigrant Cahan infused his text with “a jumble of vernacular variants, italicized renderings of English language phrases used (and misused) by Yiddish speakers, quintessential Yiddishisms rendered in semantically odd English.” This collage forced his reader to negotiate “the literal push and pull of languages, experiential histories, and temporal scales” necessary for engaging with the Lower East Side as a space of encounter. Cahan’s work makes the case, Blair argues, for the ghetto inhabitant as the exemplary subject of American modernity, the one able to negotiate the mixed identities, incomplete assimilations, and new iconographies of the modern city.

The idea of the Lower East Side as a space of encounter shaped the work of filmmaker D.W. Griffith. In particular, his Musketeers of Pig Alley (1912) encapsulates the “fluidity, vitality, and subtly coded nature of contact on the East Side streetscape.” Though the movie is ostensibly shot “on location” in the Lower East Side, it was really filmed in Fort Lee, New Jersey. To recreate the spectacle of the downtown street, Griffith relied on the iconography of the ghetto established by photographers such as Riis. By watching characters maneuvering through the streetscape, and by interpreting the codes and icons of the Lower East Side, the viewer is able to come to terms with the “visual acuity and visual subjectivity” of the modern city.

In his portraits of downtown residents taken in the 1910’s, the photographer Paul Strand both evoked and unsettled the visual traditions and iconography of his predecessors. His portraits feature downtown “types,” “the Italian rag picker, the Irish washerwoman, the patriarchal Jew,” while eschewing signs of their exact location or context. By purposefully decontextualizing iconic urban figures, Strand’s work highlights the lived experience of people that the conventions of photography had reduced to icons. As a result, his “subjects are disconnected (or liberated, depending on one’s disposition) by the camera from the hold of atmosphere or environment and meant to signify a universal and defining isolation.”

In the 1930s and 50s, works situated in the Lower East Side begin to look backwards towards a historical ghetto lost to cultural assimilation and metropolitan expansion. In the 1930s, Ben Shahn’s photographs of Lower East Side depicted locations devoid of people, as well as subjects representing both assimilated and iconic immigrant characters. Blair argues this work explored “the defining paradoxes” of Jewish Americans’ “own assimilation to the American modernity they were shaping.” His work encourages the viewer to look back to the past of the neighborhood, and contemplate its future. In these images, the Lower East Side functions “as a camera, palimpsest, and time machine,” engaging with the neighborhood as “a distinctive site of competing temporalities.” In the 1950s, Allen Ginsberg used a walk through the Lower East Side to structure his “Kaddish” (1961), a remembrance of his mother, Naomi, a Jewish immigrant and Lower East Side resident. The poem functions as a “reanimation of the Lower East Side, imaged as a site of origin and gateway to multiple times.” The poem relied on Ginsberg navigating the iconic landscape of the Lower East Side back to the place “where his mother’s American life and the modern nation’s myth of assimilation began.”

In the postwar years, image makers undertook what Blair calls a remediation of the Lower East Side. An issue of Colliers from 1950 situates the devastation of an imagined atomic detonation in New York on the Lower East Side as a way to look backwards towards the area “as a historical zone of threat, danger, and everything potentially unassimilable about the American way of life” and forward “as a crucible for metropolitan Americans” who have thrived in the city and used it as a staging ground for their own assimilation.” The photographer Martha Rosler’s series The Bowery in two inadequate descriptive systems (1974-75), utilized images of empty storefronts and text referencing drunkenness to invoke earlier uses of photography for social reform, and raise “the question of whether it might be possible to re-form documentary by confronting its history as a medium of reform.”

How the Other Half Looks presents a remarkably broad, yet also detailed, look at the iconic works that have shaped how scholars and city dwellers alike understand and encounter urban spaces in the Lower East Side and beyond. For a work of great range, it may seem strange to fault the book for what it does not include. However, it would have been fascinating to learn the ways in which the iconography and traditions of depicting the Lower East Side shaped images of the neighborhood as its Puerto Rican population increased starting in the 1960s. Is there an iconography of Loisaida, and did it build on (or diverge from) the image traditions established in the early-twentieth-century Lower East Side? Similarly, a reader might ask how depictions of the neighborhood’s current gentrification, including press coverage and the copy used to promote everything from restaurants to new real estate developments, builds on images and iconography of the past. Either would have been a fitting conclusion to a significant work, and point to productive areas for further research.

Aaron Shkuda is the author of The Lofts of Soho: Gentrification, Art, and Industry in New York, 1950–1980, and manages the Princeton-Mellon Initiative in Architecture, Urbanism, and the Humanities at Princeton University.