Image Sources

Many photographs taken in the city before 1900 are uncredited, but there were some photographers who made names for themselves. It’s also true that it’s very easy to be misled by the images that are readily available.

There are great resources online for almost anything, but the choice is usually both narrow and shallow. If the only photographs you looked at were done by José María Luis Mora or Napoleon Sarony, you’d come away with the idea that everyone was rich and all women wore corsets.

Bandit's Roost (1888) by Jacob Riis, from How the Other Half Lives.
Bandit’s Roost (1888) at 59½ Mulberry, by Jacob Riis, from How the Other Half Lives. This was considered the most crime-ridden, dangerous part of New York City. (Wikipedia)

Looking at Jacob Riis‘s work alone, the whole city would seem to be an overcrowded slum.

Alice Austen falls between these extremes, leaning distinctly toward the working class.

Organ Grinder, ca 1896 (photo by Alice Austen)
Organ Grinder, ca 1896 (photo by Alice Austen)

Austen was one of the first female photographers to do documentary work, outside a studio. Below is an organ grinder who posed for Adams, but somehow manages to seem undaunted by the oddity of the request. The lady with him may be a stranger, a wife, a sister — there’s no way to know. But what is clear about her is that she is not rich. She takes care of a family or works in a factory (or both). In the winter she wears multiple layers because she wouldn’t have a coat, at least, not the kind of coat we think of these days when the issue is getting ready to go outside in January.