7. Five Cents a Spot Photograph

Jacob Riis-5 Cents A Spot-How the Other Half Lives-Musuem of the City of NY-Jacob Riis Revealing New York's Other HalfFive Cents a Spot, photo by Jacob A. Riis. Image via Museum of the City of New York, Gift of Roger William Riis

“Five Cents a Spot” maybe one of Riis’ most indelible images. The title of the photograph may seem obscure today, but in the day it would have immediately denoted that the place shown was an illegal lodging house. Five cents refers to the rate of the bed, which was set at a minimum of 7 cents then. Moreover, the number of people in this space could not even be captured by the full frame of the photograph – there were more than 15 here, most of which slept on the floor.

Yochelson says, “This is a typical flash photo, where there is essentially no light in this room. [Riis] barges in, takes a picture with the flash, scares the living daylights out of the people – you can see it in their faces – the flash actually makes a burst of light and a boom – so it’s terrifying. Those were the first pictures.”