A photograph passes for incontrovertible proof that a given thing happened. The picture may distort; but there is always a presumption that something exists, or did exist, which is like what’s in the picture.
—Susan Sontag, On Photography, 1977 1
LET ME GET THERE is a born-digital project created to help document, visualize and better understand early 20th century immigrant/migrant lives. At its core will be more than 20,000 public domain images extracted from U.S. passport applications submitted at dozens of U.S. consulates throughout the world, circa 1914-1925. Additional chapters provide an in-depth examination of the work of key photographers who produced iconic portraits of immigrants to the U.S. a decade earlier, 1904-1914.
Supporting material on this scalar website will broadly contextualize the body of images, locating them in the wider realm of immigrant photography, as well as provide historical context for the time period in which they were produced.
1904-1914: the “immigrant type” in the flood
By the turn of the 20th century, photography was solidifying itself as a powerful tool with seemingly limitless applications. Human vision might be fleeting, limited or faulty, but a camera in the hands of a good photographer could, it was thought, capture the reality of and behind appearances, encoding it onto a durable gelatin silver print. The idiom "seeing is believing" held sway then, as it does today, and because photographs literally carry a piece of suspended time for the senses to take in, they invite viewers to look, and to look again more closely, at a subject—any type of subject. During this time period, a photographer could already persuasively document people, places, objects, events—even ideas—with amazing clarity. As a medium, photography was also positioning itself as legitimate art form, a move that would prove successful and tremendously influential within the visual arts.
Even though practical photography had been around for more than 60 years by the early 1900s, advances in camera technology and a constantly experimenting user base were about to propel "painting with light" to new heights.
Photography can also "furnish evidence," as Susan Sontag wrote, evidence that can be used to visually document, or distort, reality itself. As the world was being photographically documented in every conceivable way, the sciences kept up with advances in camera technology, looking for new ways to extend an explicitly unbiased lens onto microscopes, refractor telescopes, and everything in between. In each case, evidence was the prize, but besides the obvious limitations of a still nascent technology that would lead to serious shortcomings, the interpretation of photographic evidence would be both constrained and shaped by errors and prejudices. Some of the "new" sciences of this era would, perhaps unwittingly, build and bolster old prejudices on new (scientific) errors.
Scientific photography was already well-established within the natural sciences by the time race biologists and social scientists became enthusiastic adopters of the medium. Although there was a great deal of bad science during this time period from a variety of disciplines, such work shouldn't be looked upon today as merely naive; some of it led to extraordinarily misguided research and pernicious results that still reverberate today. In particular, the then cutting-edge applied science of eugenics embraced photography in part because it could be used to define typologies, e.g. the "criminal type", the "immigrant type", and an assortment of racial types—all of which were used to bolster both ends of contrived racial hierarchies. Beginning already with Francis Galton in the 1880s, eugenicists believed they had found the perfect tool in photography to scientifically document what they purported to be immutable human characteristics and defects, as well as to backup dubious anthropometric data. Photography was the movement's dominant medium and the way eugenicists used photographs had rippling effects in popular culture and media.2
As technology advanced and applications widened, photomechanical reproductions of photographs appeared in all types of printed materials with increasing frequency during the early 1900s. Steadily overtaking artists’ sketches and illustrations, photographs made dense columns of text more readily digestible and could help attract and hold a reader’s attention. It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to cast photographs in print media as the clickbait of the time; people couldn’t get enough of looking directly into mechanical reproductions that purported to show things as they are—with readers' eyes zeroing in on photographs before headlines, article text, or bylines.
By the mid-1920s, newspapers of record and photo magazines across the world would be inundating readers with candid, posed, and artistic photos—as print media gave way to the age of photojournalism. Just prior to the real ascent of photojournalism, photos were used selectively in news media, mainly to illustrate reportage.3 Although camera technology had improved greatly since its inception, by the 1900s and 1910s "serious" photography still required a relatively cumbersome and time-consuming camera setup and long exposure times; it couldn’t be relied on to consistently capture news in a spontaneous, documentary style. But embedding photos in different print media was advantageous, as it could help readers visualize reportage, and, in the right hands, persuade viewers and carry incredible agency to inform as well as to mislead.
Different topics could be supplemented with photographs, and newspapers in particular were enthusiastic adopters of the medium. Coinciding with the rise in the deployment of photographs were the massive social and cultural issues of the day, including a much discussed "flood" of exotic new immigrants landing in staggering numbers at seaports across the United States. What did these immigrants from unpronounceable lands look like and how did they dress? Can the new immigrant be assimilated? Would they make good citizens? Are they so different from earlier waves of immigration? Photographs, it seemed, could capture and communicate this and much more to the viewer. Newspapers were eager to report on the flood and typically did so in a way that cast the “new immigration” in a brutal dichotomy of good and bad, desirable and undesirable.
Photographs were used to supplement and supercharge textual rhetoric around the immigration issue in newspapers, magazines, books, and broadsides. For this, “immigrant type” photographs would be needed, and not just of the handful of ethnicities that made up the bulk of earlier waves of immigration to the U.S., but rather something broad enough to capture the vast ethnic, ethnoreligious and cultural differences of the so-called "new immigration." The flood was indeed diverse, and most Americans were unlikely to know anything reliable about people such as: Sicilians, Albanians, Ruthenians, Bengalis, Magyars, Roma, Sámi, Poles, Afro Caribbeans, Filipinos, Puerto Ricans—or Armenians and Assyrians fleeing genocide in the crumbling Ottoman Empire, or Bessarabian Jews fleeing pogroms. Photos of "immigrant types" could indisputably communicate the supposed physical and cultural differences, and text could (selectively) explain things for the viewers. Putting text and photo together would then reinforce central arguments, typically but not always favoring selective immigration, and eventually outright immigration restriction.
Early examples of “immigrant type” photos such as the ones above were taken at immigration stations like Ellis Island and Angel Island, but also at stations in Boston, Philadelphia, and Galveston. Although photographers working for prominent photo news services like Underwood & Underwood or Bain News Service would need permission to take photos on federal property, professional photographers managed to snap many images of immigrant arrivals for feature articles; federal employees and contractors also provided a steady stream of photos taken in different parts of immigration stations. Both commercial and government-sponsored photos would make their way into print media, with photos produced or paid for by the U.S. government leading the way.
Between 1904 and the early 1920s, the use of “immigrant type” photography was commonplace in the journalism and literature that covered the immigration issue. While it’s evident that an enormous number of photographs of immigrants were taken at, for example, Ellis Island, much of the work used in contemporaneous writings came from a small number of photographers, primarily Augustus Sherman, Lewis Hine, Julian Dimock, and Joseph H. Adams. Frequently reproduced and nationally syndicated at the time, their work was, perhaps deliberately, responsible for casting the visual representations non-immigrant America would have of its recent immigrants. More than 100 years later, their Ellis Island portraits are back again and likewise have the power to embed an image of how contemporary Americans should visualize immigrant antecedents. They are the photographic voice of a historical moment (i.e. early 20th century mass migration), but what or who are we really looking at?
Since falling into public domain and being made easily accessible via digital platforms, many of the images have become (once again) ubiquitous and continue to turn up in unlikely forms and places—online, in print, and even outdoors.4 There’s a bitter irony to some of these reworked images: many of the original portraits capture people that weren’t technically immigrants but rather non-immigrant aliens or even people that were turned away from entry.
In order to better understand what we're looking at in these iconic immigrant photos, the viewer needs a few things: the motivation of the photographer (if possible to ascertain), reliable data points, and the identity of the subjects captured. To this end, I’ve made critical re-readings of a number of the portraits, combining contextual elements previously unstudied, details that fundamentally change the way the photos, and the photographers, should be viewed and interpreted.
1914-1925: Photographer unknown
Iconic photographers like Sherman and Hine weren’t the only ones taking photos of immigrants to the United States. While they were among the handful of photographers who produced works that would go on to represent the era of mass immigration, by the WWI era millions of immigrants and transnational migrants would sit before cameras for a different purpose: to be identified rather than represented.
Starting in the late 19th century with some already settled immigrant groups in the United States, then by 1914 going on to including every nationality of would-be immigrant, identity and travel documents have included photographic documentation on millions of people who sought to cross the borders of their homeland—or were discriminated against and surveilled in their new home.5 Never in the public eye but now in the public domain, this enormous body of photographs is an untapped reservoir of visual culture, and the backstories behind the individuals in the frame are now within reach. In short, the "evidence" is proved by the identity and vice versa.
Unlike many iconic examples of immigrant photography where the identity of the photographer is known and celebrated but details concerning their subject remains obscure, the photos I've assembled (primarily from passport applications) form a near opposite scenario. Here we know the names of the subjects in the frame, where they came from, where they were traveling to, and can at minimum discern a bare bones set of facts about their lives. With the iconic and widely circulated photos of Augustus Sherman, Lewis Hine, and Julian Dimock that depict early 20th century immigrants to the U.S., this cannot easily be done.6 By doing away with anonymity, the "new" collection enables us to see more the face in the crowd and less the crowd in the face. Not only do they communicate identity and the circumstance of migration, they make both visually and factually explicit.
So what does the face of the crowd look like? Can passport photos be used to help better visualize the age of mass migration and transnational mobility in general? You're invited to see for yourself in a chapter on passport photo collections.
U.S. passport photos submitted with applications during the 1914-1925 time period were supposed to adhere to some minimal size and compositional requirements. In practice, this simply didn't happen and their remarkable inconsistency is in part what makes many of them revelatory. The same can be said for passport photos from other countries as well during this time period.7 By the 1930s and continuing on to the present day, photo requirements became more precise and more strictly enforced, producing a photograph that was ultimately less striking. This is what makes the time period of the collection equally unpredictable and rich.
In bringing the best of these unknown images to light together with brief but crucial historical frames, I hope to restore some visual depth and nuance to the tail end of the age of mass migration. Then by deanonymizing a number of iconic photos that have seen wide circulation in print and digital media since 2015, I reveal some narratives that run nearly 180 degrees contrary to the sparse context previously attached to the images. Using similar source material, I also go deep with a handful of individuals by unpacking their lives (according to archival records and, where possible, the living memory of descendants or relatives) to show that extrapolating upon visual pull can yield stories extraordinarily relevant to contemporary life.
1 Sontag, Susan. 2019. On Photography. London [England]: Penguin., 4.
2 Keen on making (visual) representative types in order to delineate between desirable and undesirable traits, American eugenists made their own portraits and composites of criminals, "hereditary inferiors in mind and body", and races/immigrants—frequently deploying them in exhibits and publications for maximum effect. Decades earlier, Galton referred to his invention of composite photography as a system of "pictorial statistics", capable of showing the "common humanity" among criminals, as well as how composite photography could "...give us typical pictures of different races of men." See: "Composite Portraits" in Nature, 18, 1878, pp. 97-100, available via Biodiversity Heritage Library.
3 Brought on by incredible developments in camera technology that made equipment lighter, faster, and allowed for the photographer to work unobtrusively, by the mid 1920s photojournalism was exploding as a global phenomenon.
4 Sherman and Hine's Ellis Island portraits have been prominently featured at the Ellis Island Museum of Immigration since the 1990s; they've also been reproduced in countless newspapers, magazines, books, or used as lantern slides in public lectures—stretching back to 1904. Besides sporadic but steady appearances in traveling exhibits across the U.S. for the last 20 years, Sherman's work continues to travel outside the U.S. in exhibits, including to countries such as: Sweden, United Kingdom, Portugal, France (2006-2007), Brazil (2015), Germany, (2017), and Poland (2017).
5 After the passage of the Geary Act in 1892 and its subsequent 1893 amendment, a number of onerous requirements were placed exclusively upon alien, native born, and naturalized Chinese American residents. Chinese Americans were required to possess certificates of residence and certificates of identity, at all times. Such identity documents were to include photos, marking the first time the U.S. government required photos of citizens and/or residents in identity documents. During the WWI era, governments across the globe started to require applicant photos in passports.
6 I had some success at deanonymizing over a dozen photos by Sherman and Hine, but many of the identities I uncovered reveal stories of exclusion and exploitation rather than actual immigrants that went on to become U.S. citizens.
7 See, for example, a selection of Maltese passport application photos from the National Archives of Malta, circa 1910s-1920s. Other collections are coming to light, including an extensive selection of expired passports, internal travel passports, and passport applications from the National Archives of Latvia and the Kaunas Regional State Archives (Lithuania), digitized and made available by FamilySearch. See: Rīgas Prefektūras pasu lietu kolekcija, 1919-1940 and Lithuania, Kaunas, immigration records : passports). The University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa Library has digitized and transcribed an incredible collection of 165 passport applications made by Russian migrants living in Hawaii who were attempting to repatriate after the 1917 Revolution. Photos were included in their handwritten applications and many are stunning.