It was great to kick off our semester together today! I’m really looking forward to learning from and with all of you, faculty and students alike.
I wanted to send an update about this coming week. To engage the history of documentary as a form of advocacy, we will discuss two readings: excerpts from Jacob Riis’s How the Other Half Lives (1890), and a long poem by Muriel Rukeyser, “Book of the Dead” (1938). I have divided the Riis reading into two separate PDFs–read as much as you can (about 50 pages total). And please read all of the Rukeyser poem (about 30 pages). These readings are in a folder, “Readings for February 1,” located in our shared google folder.
In addition, please take a look at some of Riis’s photographs. Riis is considered one of the first documentary photographers in the U.S., and he famously delivered slide lantern lectures of his early photographs to audiences in an effort to generate momentum for housing reform among New York City’s wealthy residents. You can find digital archives his photographs at the Museum of the City of New York and the International Center of Photography. Please visit one of those sites and select 2-3 photographs that you would like to discuss in class, when I’ll make time for you to share your selections with another member of the class (on your phone, or laptop, etc.). When looking at the photographs, ask yourself: what catches your eye? Why? How are people and places represented? What are the major features of composition—shape, structure, lighting, angle? Keep in mind that the “truths” photographs hold are more slippery than we typically think. We often think of photographs as mechanical or transparent records of reality. However, photographs can be staged or altered, and like other kinds of “texts,” such as poems and fiction, photos present particular points of view, and need to be interpreted (their meaning coheres in the viewer). Riis was expressly trying to persuade his audience; how do his images participate in that project? What and how do they make you feel?
If you have any questions, please drop me a line! I look forward to talking with you next Friday about Riis and Rukeyser, photography and poetry, documentary advocacy and its problems.
Prof. Joseph Entin