Adopting an immersive approach to Augustus Sherman and Lewis Hine's Ellis Island portraits can reveal complicated and sometimes unsettling backstories—stories that provide deeply ironic but sobering checks to the long-standing visual ubiquity of their work. Though the photos endure, more widely seen than ever before, comparatively little has been written about the lives captured on Sherman and Hine's hundreds of surviving gelatin silver prints.1
Peter Mesenhöller's collection of Sherman's work includes portraits of mostly anonymous individuals that at first glance appear to be immigrants but also many that, given the restrictive immigration laws and inspection regimes in play, could have faced immediate debarment.2 Realizing this made me curious about the intentions behind Sherman's work (was he just looking for interesting faces and costumes?) and wonder even more about the identities of his subjects. Who were they? What became of them? I wouldn't get anywhere without their names, a detail Sherman rarely recorded. In turn, this led me to start this project on photography from the era of mass immigration—in part because of the deep unease I felt with a number of Sherman's portraits after subjecting them to some scrutiny. Eventually, I met with success in identifying a number of individuals or broadly defining group portraits.3
In total, over thirty photos are examined in twelve separate chapters: one photo by Lewis Hine and the rest by Augustus Sherman.4 In each case, I started with unreliable data points, conflicting details, and zero personal names. The photos I researched were chosen partly because I was most curious about the subjects in the frame and partly because I thought I had a chance at revealing their identities. I went where the research took me and found the slowly-evolving stories stunning and not at all what I expected.
None of the subjects' names were ever revealed by the photographers, and their identities, to the best of my knowledge, ever subsequently studied by researchers or photo historians. All the stories are, however, fragmentary and not definitive. They're starting points.
1 Sherman's work is extensively discussed in the following:
- Sherman, Augustus F., and Peter Mesenhöller. 2005. August F. Sherman: Ellis Island portraits, 1905-1920. New York: Aperture.
- Baur, Joachim. 2015. Die Musealisierung der Migration Einwanderungsmuseen und die Inszenierung der multikulturellen Nation. Bielefeld: transcript Verlag.
- Dolmage, Jay. 2018. Disabled upon arrival: eugenics, immigration, and the construction of race and disability. Columbus: The Ohio State University Press.
- Pegler-Gordon, Anna. 2009. In sight of America: photography and the development of U.S. immigration policy. Berkeley: University of California Press.
2 Sherman, Augustus F., and Peter Mesenhöller. 2005. August F. Sherman: Ellis Island portraits, 1905-1920. New York: Aperture.
3 Sherman also photographed some of his subjects multiple times, with different configurations, and in different locations. His larger group portraits offer the most revealing examples of such recombinations but are also the most difficult to precisely identify. While I've been successful at unlocking some crucial elements (origin, dates, complete lists of names, purpose of emigration, destinations) of a few of Sherman's group portraits, in most cases it's not possible to match faces to exact names. Five of the chapters below focus on group photos and their related portraits. In all but one case, the individuals photographed were either non-immigrant aliens or essentially contract laborers.
4 Obviously, I had more success in unmasking Sherman's work compared to Hine's. The reason for the lopsided focus has to do with the widespread deployment of Sherman's Ellis Island portraits during the early 1900s. Each instance of use provided new clues and there were simply far more of these for Sherman's work than for Hine's.