Beyond Photography: Alan Lomax, Meet Jacob Riis

Alan Lomax playing guitar on stage at the Mountain Music Festival, Asheville, North Carolina (Photo: Library of Congress, Public Domain)

It would be too simplistic somehow to call Alan Lomax an archivist, curator, historian, or musicologist, although he was all of those things. Meticulously and single-mindedly — without regard for money, fame, or even personal safety — Lomax criscrossed the globe for the better part of six decades, recording thousands of songs and interviews, alongside hours of film footage. By the 1950’s, he’d also added photography to his already formidable arsenal, the better to document the locations he visited, and the musicians and people with whom he interacted.

Jacob Riis, like Alan Lomax, was a documentarian with a camera. While Riis’ politics and motivation have come into question (both in his time and after), he was an innovator who literally took documentary photography to a new place; his photos, shot in tenements, flophouses, and other places too often overlooked by the citizens (and many of the other photographers) of the day, expanded not only the vernacular of photography, but also the sense of what photography was “for.” Like Matthew Brady before him, he turned an unflinching eye, and lens, on what he saw, using his craft as a tool for protest and change.

Bohemian Cigarmakers at Work in their Tenement (Photo: Jacob Riis; Public Domain)
Both men leave behind vast bodies of work, some of which has broken out of its original categories and spilled over into the culture at large. While Lomax is perhaps best known for his field recordings and the Association of Cultural Equity, the music he championed cropped up in some unlikely places, such as Moby’s 1999 CD Play. Riis’ signature work How the Other Half Lives not only remains in print, but its title has become a shorthand of sorts when talking about society’s less fortunate. His legacy, too, lives on, not only in his photos but in parks and social services organizations that honor his name and the spirit of his work. 

In both Lomax’s recordings and Riis’ photography, there’s something that suggests a bygone time that stretches back even farther than what’s been captured on the observer’s medium of choice. These recordings and photos are simultaneously of their time and hovering somewhere outside or beyond time, a fleeting glimpse of lost customs and cultures. They’re positioned somewhere between the strange familiar and familiar strange; we recognize these things as part of our own cultural, and sometimes even literal, DNA even as they seem somewhat alien to us.

What I draw from these two men — an archivist who happened to be a photographer, and a photographer who was an accidental archivist — is that when we’re consciously trying for something timeless in our work, we’re not only trying too hard, we’re also missing the point. Much, if not most, of what’s timeless attains that quality usually because it’s so much of its time, rather than in spite of that fact. It reminds us where we’ve come from, and that we’ve less of an idea of where we’re going than we’d generally like to think. Sometimes the best we can do, whether as photographers or just as people, is be here now, as best we can… observing, documenting, and bearing witness so that those who come later will have the means and motivation to remember.

 Further Reading/Resources:

Alan Lomax: Check out his Wikipedia entry, as well as the website for The Association for Cultural Equity and an NPR story chronicling the digitization of the Lomax collection.

Jacob Riis: The Museum of the City of New York has an extensive Riis collection. NPR’s All Things Considered ran an appreciation of How the Other Half Lives, which you can access here. You can also read his Wikipedia entry here.

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