Italian Mother and Baby
"Italian Mother and Baby" appeared in Jacob Riis's How the Other Half Lives: Studies among the Tenements of New York (1890). This image captures the misery of urban poverty as well as the tenacity of life. It is infused with unmistakable sentimentalism and symbolism. This forlorn mother with her swaddled baby is evocative of Mary and of many paintings of "Madonna and Child." The hat hanging on the wall above her head is also suggestive of the halo that long represented the sacred in ancient art and religious iconography.
Many of Riis's photographs provide insight into the struggles of everyday life for immigrant children. What does this photo reveal about infancy among Italian immigrants? In what ways does the material culture of infancy mingle Old World practices and modern ones? While useful for recording the past, documentary photographs need to be seen through a critical lens. For example, historians have observed that children in Riis's photographs are portrayed as innocents, victims, or criminals. How is the baby in this picture represented?
How did Riis stimulate sympathetic feelings and summon sacred associations in this photo's gritty realism? In order to create this rendition of the Virgin Mary and Child Riis developed the "flash" technique that illuminated the basement of this New York City tenement. The halo-like hat was Riis's own and did not belong to the father who barely supported this family as a rag picker. Why might Riis have staged the scene? As a social reformer, Riis used religious imagery in order to capture the attention of the middle-class and inspire them to act on their beliefs to help the poor.
Jacob Riis, "Italian Mother and Baby," in How the Other Half Lives: Studies among the Tenements of New York (1890). Annotated by Miriam Forman-Brunell.