Mirror with a Memory

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In Chapter 8 of After the Fact in the article, “The Mirror with a Memory” by James West Davidson and Mark Lytle, the authors tell the story of photography and of a man names Jacob Riis. Riis came from Scandinavia as a young man and moved to the United States. Riis firsthand experienced the bad conditions in the heart of the slums of New York. He worked from place to place, doing odd jobs until he found a job as a police reporter for the New York Tribune. Riis lived in a slum called “The Bend.” When he became a reporter, Riis aspired to make people see the awful conditions of “The Bend.” Riis was continuously disappointed because his articles did not receive much attention or sympathy he was looking for. He then vowed to write a book called How the Other Half Lives. In his book, he would detail all the troubling settings that people were living in. To stir interest, Riis learned that photography was very powerful and made readers reflect and think.

The article then goes on to talk about actual photography. Photography was relatively new at the time but still detailed an image much more effectively than would a painting or drawing. Photographs at the time were very bland. They only recorded what was there. The camera was given the nickname, “the mirror with a memory.” People who viewed a photograph were occasionally not able to see any aesthetically pleasing images. Later on, developments were made and cameras that were previously large became smaller and more portable. An example is the Kodak camera that shot higher quality shots.

Riis’s goal was not to make pretty pictures. He used a primitive camera and his photos came out bleak compared to those from newer cameras. The picture called “Five Cents a Spot” on page 184 exemplifies this. The picture is clearly artless and bland. However, Riis liked that it showed the true setting. Virtually all photographers at the time had bias, and even Riis was included. Their shots were shot to make it as selective as...
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