1. Riis' Pieces
On March 5, 1899, the day after Michael Angelo Woolf died from heart failure at his sister's house in Brooklyn, his obituary in the New York Times claimed, "Until his advent in newspaper work the comic picture was a mere vehicle for the presentation of a joke, as far as the American weekly was concerned. Mr. Woolf began the presentation of types. His characters were human beings. His favorite type was the waif, and he was known as the artist of waifs."
The waifs and other types that Woolf drew were most often from Five Points, and Mulberry Bend and other immigrant neighborhoods in New York's Lower East Side. These were the residents of the same tenements and alleys that Jacob Riis was photographing at the same time, although with different intentions.
The "artist of waifs" devoted a lot his attention to these children, too. Woolf's drawings, without the stylistic bombast of a Gibson or a Sullivant and rarely printed larger than a quarter of a page, had a quirky charm and a sketched on-the-spot, reportorial honesty to them. The Times said, "To those who remember and who reveled in the old, rude, forceful school of newspaper portraiture which preceded the present more artistic but not more original school the death of Michael Angelo Woolf comes as news of the loss of a personal friend."
There's no evidence that Woolf knew Jacob Riis personally or shared his interest in reform. Woolf did on occasion do a drawing that could be considered social commentary, especially if the occasion was Christmas or Thanksgiving, but he rarely editorialized, at least not within the pages of Life. Still, the chance that the two newspapermen never crossed paths seems awfully slim.
Woolf's eye was every bit as unflinching as Riis' camera was. That he found humor in the lives of the tenement dwellers, both children and adults, shouldn't suggest any lack of sympathy for their plight. The humor brings these characters to life, includes them in the human race. This is something that Riis' photographs, in spite of their depicting actual, living human beings, struggle to convey. Whether it comes from the harsh light of the magnesium flash or the shadowy suspicions Riis had about the moral rectitude of his voiceless subjects, there is a subtle emphasis placed on the otherness of the other half. To understand what the living conditions of the tenements were, Jacob Riis' work is essential but the picture of what life was like in these neighborhoods is incomplete without Michael Angelo Woolf's drawings.
2. Romance and MelodramaMichael Angelo Woolf was born in London in 1837, and moved to America with his family at the age of twelve. About the time of the Civil War, he dedicated himself fully to a drawing career, gaining a position on the Daily Graphic, the first American illustrated newspaper. He went to Paris to study under Pierre Edouard Frère, and returned to New York to become a mainstay at Harper's magazines. Woolf became a regular contributor to Life soon after the magazine was launched in 1883.
Although he'd shown an interest in drawing from childhood and had even made a few sales at an early age Woolf's youth was spent in pursuit of a career on the stage. According to the New York Times, he was managed by Col. William E. Sinn "at the Chestnut St. Theater
Woolf's theatrical background may have showed itself in the attention he paid to capturing the various dialects of the Lower East Side residents and in the lampooning of melodramatic stage and dime-novel speech the children in his drawings often displayed. Whatever the inspiration for it may have been, Woolf certainly wrote some of the wordiest captions ever, no small achievement for a 19th Century cartoonist.