MCNY Blog: New York Stories

Iconic photos of a changing city, and commentary on our Collections & Exhibitions from the crew at MCNY.org

Curator’s Notepad: Bonnie Yochelson on How the Other Half Lives

A tip from the guest curator of Jacob A. Riis: Revealing New York’s Other Half: Lean in.

The greatest curatorial challenge we faced in creating the Riis exhibition was the small size of the objects: Riis’s 4 x 5-inch photographs are shown with letters, scrapbook pages, handwritten manuscripts, books, and magazines. Although the photographs are powerful and Riis’s story is remarkable, visitors need to pay close attention to get the message.

This is paradoxical, since Riis’s success as a reformer and his rise to celebrity status depended on his talent as a communicator. Not only did he write a steady stream of newspaper articles, magazine articles, and books – two of which were national bestsellers – he spent several months a year traveling all over the country giving illustrated lectures. People flocked to hear him, and local newspapers reported on his visits.

Therefore the 8-minute video of Riis’s lantern slide lecture, “How the Other Half Lives and Dies in New York,” is the highlight of the exhibition. It gives visitors a chance to experience Riis’s photographs as they were meant to be seen: as he entertained his audience, the images appeared in front of them, sometimes larger than life. Riis generally showed 100 slides and spoke for more than an hour. Our version is much edited, but accurate. Here’s how we did it.

In a scrapbook (also on view in the exhibition) is the only known script of a Riis lecture.  As he explained in a marginal note, Riis spoke freely to the pictures “according to how I feel,” but on one occasion – a speech given to “Christian Workers” in Washington, D.C. in November 1891 – a stenographer took notes, which were printed in a report. The script is very detailed, with some images shown as line engravings and others noted in parentheses. The script even indicates when the audience laughed or applauded.

The creator of the video in the exhibition is Terry Borton of the American Magic Lantern Theater. Terry is an expert in the history of the magic lantern, an instrument that projected images of paintings or photographs for 19th and early 20th century audiences. A precursor of the movies, magic lantern shows covered a range of topics from fiction to travel and science, and often included special effects and music. Terry is also an actor; I first met him about 15 years ago, when I saw him perform his Christmas show at Lincoln Center.

To produce the video, I provided Terry with a copy of the report in Riis’s scrapbook, and a list of about 65 images that I matched to those mentioned in it.

Because the City Museum has digitized the entire Riis Collection, this was technically easy to do. Within a few weeks, Terry sent me a script paired with images. He then read it to me over the phone, which, I must admit, brought tears to my eyes. Terry brilliantly captured Riis’s style and message: the lecture succeeds in combining Riis’s tour of New York’s slums with his “lay sermon”: the final image depicts a marble sculpture of Christ in the Church of Our Lady in Copenhagen.

Terry fine-tuned his performance by delivering it to several groups of magic lantern aficionados. Because Riis was known for his high-pitched voice and foreign accent, Terry wished to imitate it. Since the video will be shown in Denmark, I had some reservations about his attempting a Danish accent, but I nevertheless was able to obtain from the director of the Kunstmuseum in Ribe – Riis’s hometown – a recording of a local man reading the script. Terry’s Danish-accented version was so subtle, we decided to go with it.

The hymn that begins and ends the video – “Because He Loved Me So” – is also mentioned in the report of Riis’s lecture. Finding a singer posed no difficulty for Terry, who provided the Museum with two recordings, one of the hymn and one of his reading. The Museum created the final product.

Even with the ambient noise of the crowd at the exhibition opening on October 13, 2015, a steady stream of visitors sat through the entire lecture. Most gratifying was the comment by a Danish visitor, who remarked that the Danish accent was very good! Terry and I were thrilled to hear that.

–Bonnie Yochelson, guest curator, Jacob A. Riis: Revealing New York’s Other Half, on view through March 20, 2016

About Jenny Shalant

Jenny Shalant is the Director of Digital Marketing at the City Museum.

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This entry was posted on November 3, 2015 by in Exhibitions, Photography Collection and tagged , , .

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