Near the turn of the last century, the journalist and social reformer Jacob Riis photographed immigrant garment workers sewing knee-pants in a cramped tenement on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. Fred R. Conrad, who saw the image in Riis’s pioneering tome, “How the Other Half Lives” (1890), wanted to recreate it in a cramped room a few blocks away, at the Tenement Museum. The museum, he said, satisfied a curiosity he often felt in old New York buildings: What lives had been lived there? Through actors who portrayed residents who once lived in the building, the museum “actually made the walls talk,” Mr. Conrad said.
Using a 1950 plate camera to approximate Riis’s 19th-century gear (Riis once used a handgun loaded with magnesium powder for a flash), Mr. Conrad positioned the camera and the museum characters, stepped out from under the dark cloth hood and then watched the image take a life of its own — one very different from Riis’s. “The first thing I realized was that it’s impossible to focus,” he said. “You set up as far back as you can and fire off your flash powder, which I didn’t use, and then it’s a shot in the dark. It was a revelation. It’s very different from shooting digital.”
Like Riis, who came to the United States from Denmark at age 21, Mr. Conrad has a family immigration tale, if several generations removed. “My great-great-grandfather came with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show, from Germany, in 1899 or 1900,” Mr. Conrad said. “He toured America for a couple years, saved his money, then went back to Germany and brought his wife and kids to America.” If the walls of Oscar Heinrich Conrad’s old bakery in Momence, Ill., could only talk, what a story they would tell.
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