What would it have been like to see the photograph called “I Scrubs” — Riis’s portrait of 9-year-old Katie, who kept house for her brothers and sisters — and know that she was living somewhere in the city, her life shrunken to little more than a sense of economic duty?
There is nothing that we in the 21st century can do for Katie except to wonder whether she was ever allowed to outgrow her premature elderliness. But to Riis’s audience, Katie was the living present, the very burden of their concern. What was she like? How did she sound? What could it mean to be 9 years old and so ancient already? These are questions it would have seemed natural to ask the photographer who had asked Katie to pose for him.
To us, of course, Riis’s showmanship would have seemed like intolerable distractions from the purity of the suffering his images convey. The last thing these photographs need, from the modern point of view, is an interlocutor, especially one who wants to tell moralizing anecdotes or characterize his subjects by race.
From the distance of 120 years, the mute testimony of Riis’s photographs seems eloquent enough. We stare at them and know that though times may have changed in Mulberry Bend, the camera does not have far to look to find suffering that is every bit as dire.
There is no mention of any sort of exigence for this odd editorial pronouncement. I find it particularly interesting because there are no illustrations for the article. The images are so pure (not re-engraved as book illustrations, nor hand-colored as website widgets as found here) that they are invisible to the general public. They only exist in the minds of the hyper-educated NYT reader who has of course seen this somewhat obscure image from Riis’s second book that has been out of print since 1892, reprinted as an aesthetic museum piece. Of course the presence of the image as a component of an argument against poverty taints it as “mere rhetoric.”