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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
Of course, you and I know that this unbounded faith in the integrity of the photograph is often rudely shaken, for, while photographs may not lie, liars may photograph. It becomes necessary, then, in our revelation of the truth, to see to it that the camera we depend upon contracts no bad habits.
—Lewis Hine, Social Photography; How the Camera May Help in the Social Uplift, 1909 2
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
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.
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 skilled photographer could 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.
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 good and bad science during this time period from a variety of disciplines, the "bad" 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.3
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.4 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 thereby embed a selective image in the mind's eye of the viewer. Publishers no doubt realized that photographs were more likely to persuade rather than alienate a reader, but photographs carry an incredible agency that can inform as well as mislead—both of which could be of use for different agendas.
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 answers to these questions 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 settled 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 supporting text could (selectively) explain perceived qualities 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. In this way, the public was instructed in how they should read an immigrant type.
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 the nation's 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, as part of multimedia concerts, and even outdoors as public art.5 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 Augustus Sherman and Lewis 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.6 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—but we don't know who took the photographs. 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., ascertaining identity cannot easily be done.7 My point throughout this project is not only that iconic photos deserve better reference points to enable accurate interpretation—such as subject identity—but also that they need not be the only source material to help today's viewers (visually) understand yesterday's era of mass migration. 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.8 By the 1930s and continuing on to the present day, photo requirements became more precise and more strictly enforced, constraints that would lead to photographs that were 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 Hine, Lewis 1909. “Social Photography; How the Camera May Help in the Social Uplift,” Proceedings of the National Conference of Charities and Correction at the Thirty-sixth Annual Session held in the City of Buffalo, New York, June 9-16, 1909, ed. Alexander Johnson (Fort Wayne, Indiana: Press of Fort Wayne, 1909): 355-59. Available via HathiTrust.
3 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 of various 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 a medium that 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.
4 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.
5 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 appear 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). More recently, Sherman's photos have been used in Peter Boyer's multimedia orchestral work, Ellis Island: The Dream of America and Ai Weiwei's sprawling public art project, Good Fences Make Good Neighbors.
6 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. One requirement was that Chinese Americans were required to possess certificates of residence and certificates of identity at all times, whether they were just out for a walk or traveling in any capacity. Such identity documents were to include photographs, 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, a requirement that is of course now mandatory.
7 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.
8 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.
Awaiting deportation [1906-1907]
I think I'm in a frame...I don't know. All I can see is the frame. I'm going in there now to look at the picture.1
Revealing and exploring the human identities behind Sherman and Hine's portraits helps establish a fuller context for what a broad range of emigrants faced when they arrived at Ellis Island, and beyond. But zeroing in on the identity of one individual set against the millions of arrivals at Ellis Island requires a number of crucial elements to come together and for a high threshold of verification to be reached. Without conclusive visual or documentary evidence to corroborate an identity, even a well-supported hypothesis of identity can easily veer into speculation and result in a dead end or worse, a mismatch. The photos I've chosen to research in the preceding chapters are backed by, it is hoped, sufficient visual and documentary evidence, coupled with convincing arguments in support of the conclusions reached. Although Ellis Island remains the same physical setting, in this chapter I explore an unexpected reversal of unknowns. Here we definitely know the identities of the subjects in the photos, but we don't conclusively know the identity of the photographer(s).
In December 1904, a departmental letter from U.S. Commissioner-General of Immigration, Frank P. Sargent, was sent to the Immigration Commissioner at Ellis Island, William Williams, and to the heads of other immigration stations. The letter requested that five (later seven) copies of photographs and detailed personal descriptions of excluded and deported aliens—specifically those classified as convicts, prostitutes or anarchists—be sent to the Department of Commerce and Labor – Immigration Service in Washington D.C. Descriptions of the crimes committed in the emigrants' homeland prior to emigration were included in the responding letters and shed light on an aspect of deportation policy that has received little attention.
Williams and his successors complied with Sargent's request until at least 1909, accumulating hundreds of case files and photographs that documented the deportation of convicts, prostitutes and anarchists from various ports of entry, primarily Ellis Island. The 1904-1909 time period happens to coincide with Sherman's earliest dated photographs and on through to his most productive period of photographing would-be immigrants—a connection that raises a number of intriguing implications.
In 2012, the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) released a dozen of these deportation case files sent by Commissioner Robert Watchorn to Sargent in conjunction with the exhibit Attachments: Faces and Stories from America’s Gates; 24 x 18 cm gelatin silver prints of deportee included in the case files were featured in the exhibit. The twelve separate portraits below were eventually added to NARA's online catalog and are included below. Though this represents only a small sample of the photos from NARA's sprawling collection of deportation files, they are eye-opening on multiple levels and might just help to re-contextualize Sherman's work at Ellis Island.2
Crimes of moral turpitude?
Appointed by Theodore Roosevelt, Commissioner-General Sargent was not a blatant restrictionist, but it's clear from his writings and interviews that he remained deeply suspicious of the "new immigration" and actively worked to shape public opinion around his own prejudices. However, he utilized more opaque and bureaucratic means to curb the rising tide of undesirables, e.g. favoring a literacy test on immigrants in order to target southeastern Europeans whose populations were thought to posses high rates of illiteracy; ramping up LPC designations in order to force hearings and increase the chance of deportation; investigating the complicity of shipping agents in suspicious overseas migration flows in order to curtail specific routes of passenger transport; and exaggerating the extent of alleged smuggling of Chinese laborers to help keep the "yellow peril" an existential threat.
A look at some of Sargent's writings concurrent with the release of the above departmental letter reveal odious prejudices against Southern Italian and Eastern European immigrants in particular. In his writings, he repeatedly bemoans the high rates of illiteracy, mental instability, pauperism and criminality of the "new immigration" and how the "very undesirable class from southern and eastern Europe is taking the place of the Teutons and the Celts."3 This fits with the implications of the letter as well as with most of the nationalities of the deportees in the photos. Other articles by Sargent dating from the time of the departmental letter, and paired with the work of the irrepressibly anti-immigrant Senator Henry Cabot Lodge, offer the same restrictionist/nativist arguments and shed light on the perceived threat, as Sargent puts it, the "diseased and pauperized peoples of Europe" posed to old stock America.
The accompanying letters to the photos are nearly identical to one another, no matter the nationality of the deportee. Besides recording standard physical diagnostics and measurements typical for the time (age, height, weight, eye color, shape of nose, chin and mouth, etc.), the letter also includes each deportee's shoe size, hat size and number of intact or missing teeth. This was in addition to the accompanying fine-grain, silver gelatin photograph which could more than adequately capture physical facial qualities in the hands of a good photographer. But what's truly astonishing about the letters are the details concerning the purported crimes of the soon-to-be deportees. There are a few serious past offenses in this small group (complicity in murder, spousal abuse, assault) but the rest are in the main, absolute misdemeanors by any account.
Some of the purported crimes are absurd by any standard and difficult to imagine they were used as grounds for deportation, especially since all were crimes that the assailants had already been punished for. But this was the early 1900s:
- An Italian was deported because he had "served one month in jail for stealing wood"; another because he had "served eight days in prison for applying vile names to a woman."; another because he "served two years twenty-seven days for adultery."
- A Hungarian was deported because he "served two terms in prison, three days for stealing wood bottoms, and four days for a similar offense."
- A Ukrainian was deported because he "Served two terms in prison; two months for assault and two days for failure to register his calf to the community."
- A Polish man was deported because he "Served nine months in prison; one month for stealing peas, and eight months for being an accomplice to thieves."
Some questions linger: how did Ellis Island officials collect and verify the details of a would-be immigrants' criminal past? Were past crimes recorded in emigration papers or passports? Even for stealing peas? Or was it simply a question put to the emigrant, to which some of them truthfully responded and an inquiry began? A 1904 article from The New York Times subtitled 'How the Inspectors make up for Congress's refusal to pass restriction laws' offers some clues:
When an immigrant appears whom the Inspector believes to be of the criminal class or a contract laborer, the Inspector shapes his questions accordingly. Sometimes a man appears who looks as though he had spent a time in jail. Then the Inspector, looking at the papers before him as though he had the case all there, asks a question such as 'What have you been doing since you came out of prison?' The immigrant then, taken off his guard, makes some reply which shows that he has been in prison, an he is set aside to be deported.4
It appears that immigrant inspectors used their own discretion when deploying questions designed to entrap interviewees, much as they did when questioning suspected polygamists and anarchists.
By 1908, there was active interest on the part of U.S. government officials to standardize the way criminal records were recorded and issued in so-called "penal passports" for ex-convicts, something that would have ended the creative inspection regime, at least for this layer of excludable classes.
Based on the circumstance of Sargent's request and physical setting in which the photos were shot—as well as their composition and tonality—I argue that it is likely that the photographs were taken by Sherman. Some of the backdrops such as partition walls (taken from the medical examination rooms), light fixtures, doors, and chairs are identical to ones in Sherman's widely-circulated photos, while others were taken on the roof garden of the main building in a strikingly similar manner to photos attributed to Sherman.
Moreover, the handwritten initials "A.F.S." appear in the upper left-hand corner of each of the cover letters that accompanied the photos and personal descriptions in this set of deportation files. In fact, his initials appear on over 130 ex-convict deportation files that I subsequently analyzed.If Sherman wasn't the photographer, then he was at least working alongside someone who was taking photos concurrently with him—and in a near identical manner. How likely is that? More likely would be that Sherman was the photographer for both scenarios, i.e. detained immigrants and (ex-convict, etc.) immigrants awaiting deportation. No other Ellis Island staff has been identified or referred to as being an onsite photographer during the same time period, but someone was certainly busy taking photos in an official capacity—and getting fairly good at it while developing a characteristic style. Sherman's job title at Ellis Island around 1904/1905 was Registry Clerk and immigration and photo historians have long wondered what brought about Sherman's interest in photographing seemingly random arrivals. With the re-contextualization of this set of images we might now have the impetus: it was part of his job.5
The six photos below—three on the left-side panels attributed to Sherman and three on the right-side panels lacking attribution—illustrate the compositional similarities that consistently run through both bodies of work:
As with most work done by employees all throughout the U.S. Federal government, bylines or credits for their work, creative or otherwise, are often non-existent. If a source is given, it typically lists the government authority or agency involved in the work under review rather than personal names. All of Sherman's Ellis Island portraits were taken on Federal property, presumably during Sherman's work time. Was the box camera he used also owned by the government? Given the logistics, it's likely. The resulting anonymity is in keeping with governmental work paid for by taxpayer money and is perhaps a big part of the reason why some of Sherman's work has quietly ended up in the public domain.6
Besides turning up in print publications, during Sherman's tenure at Ellis Island his photographs were also framed "displayed around the visitor's balcony" at Ellis Island for years and given as mementos to important visitors to the immigration station.7 None of the deportee photos, however, were displayed publicly but some were passed on to the press, who reproduced illustrated versions based on the photos taken at Ellis Island. No mention of the practice of photographing convicts, anarchists, prostitutes, etc. appears to have been made publicly; the photos by and large remained in government agency hands.
The scope and duration of the deportee photography remains unclear, but the official process appears to have started shortly after Sargent's December 1904 letter.8 9 Photos and deportation files made years after Sargent's request continue to reference the December 1904 letter, indicating compliance with "instructions contained in Department letter No. 47768", rather than statutory law. Interestingly, although Sherman had worked at Ellis Island since the 1890s, his earliest photos actually date from just five months prior to Sargent's letter, while the station was still under Commissioner William Williams authority, but the reasons for Sherman's initial photographs dating from (at least) mid-1904 remain obscure. In any case, Sherman would have been well-positioned to carryout or at least be involved in the apparently novel practice of photographing deportees; he already had some experience at Ellis Island. But why take photos of would-be immigrants who may have been detained but not necessarily deported? As with the photos and detailed personal descriptions of deportees to come, some of the answers might lie with official instructions sent to immigration stations by Commissioner General of Immigration Sargent.
A June 1904 article in the Washington Times features, in part, an interview with Sargent that broadly illuminates the Bureau of Immigration's motivation for collecting "immigrant type" photos and also happens to coincide with the time of Sherman's first known photographic portraits:
Another plan is [for the Bureau] to secure photographs of a high grade of the various types. Commissioner Sargent has some folios of such photographs for his personal study which are very interesting. They are veritable kaleidoscopes of human character, and a glance through them is sufficient to show any discerning mind who are desirable and who the undesirable—no need to ask anyone to violate international courtesy by naming them.10
While we can assume that the reason for creating a photographic and diagnostic record was to prevent deportees from reentering the country under false names, even those who steal peas and wood, it's unclear how this new regime was applied. There are also some patently counterintuitive aspects of the practice.
Three of the photos in the set above feature detainees in groups of two or more. Why were unrelated individuals, who arrived on different steamships, photographed together rather than apart? There would be little chance of them trying to reenter the U.S. as a group, so why not make separate photographs? Or were the photos simply cut and cropped before being distributed to immigration officials at different ports of entry? Or was there another choreography at play? More importantly, were all detainees slated for deportation photographed or just those deemed to be convicts, prostitutes, and anarchists?
In any case, the deportation photos as a whole fit well within the body of much of Sherman's known work, as dozens of his iconic "immigrant" photographs actually capture the face of restriction, of failed emigration, of shattered dreams.
There's a deep irony running throughout this small set of images. With most of Sherman's photos, we don't know the identity of the sitters and have little chance of ever knowing because of Sherman's misleading or nonexistent annotations. But with the deportation photos we have far more personal and photographic information about those who were definitely not let into the U.S., rather than those who might have been.
1 Jeff Bailey aka Jeff Markham in the 1947 film noir, Out of the Past, directed by Jacques Tourneur.
2 Because of the limited access to NARA's archives during the Coronavirus pandemic, the case files I first studied only included individuals featured in the 2012 NARA exhibit, i.e. deportees who had been "convicted of a crime involving moral turpitude" prior to their attempted entry to the United States via Ellis Island. In May 2022, I was able to undertake a fuller analysis of over 130 ex-convict deportation case files which included photographs, all of which were made at Ellis Island. The original 12 case files from the NARA exhibit proved to be a representative sample of the larger body of ex-convict deportation files and supported my initial conclusions. Sherman's initials were included in 99% of the supporting documentation.
4 SIFTING THE IMMIGRANTS AT ELLIS ISLAND. The New York Times, 17 July 1904, p.24.
5 During his tenure with the Immigration Service at Large, Sherman worked at Ellis Island as Stenographer, Clerk, Registry Clerk, and Chief Clerk. By 1921, he was serving as Private Secretary to Commissioner of Immigration, but by 1923 until his death he worked as a Clerk in the Special Inquiry Division. See: Report Submitted by Superintendent I. F. Wixon relative to the Personnel Force, 1924 Casefile 55280/4. [Undated.], from: Records of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, Series A: Subject Correspondence Files, Part 3: Ellis Island, 1900-1933 [ProQuest History Vault].
6 One photo attributed to Sherman first turns up, uncredited, in the Annual report of the Superintendent of Immigration to the Secretary of the Treasury for the fiscal year ended 1903/04, printed in late 1904; the 1906/07 report features eight photos by Sherman. Appearing in a variety of publications (newspaper articles, books, magazines, etc.) starting in 1904, each reproduction of his work does not credit a photographer or name a source. Sherman's name is first mentioned in the February 1917 edition of National Geographic where a second round of his photos was published, repeating some images included in the May 1907 edition where his work was uncredited or, in a related publication, includes the line "Photograph from F. P. Sargent, Commissioner General of Immigration." Most of the 36 photos included in the 1917 edition added the following byline: "Photo from/by Frederic C. Howe". Although Sherman was undoubtedly the photographer for all of the photos, he is credited as such on only four of the images. Howe was Commissioner of Immigration of the Port of New York (Ellis Island) from 1914-1919.
7 Pegler-Gordon, Anna In Sight of America: Photography and the Development of U.S. Immigration Policy. (American Crossroads, number 28.) Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press. 2009, 129.
8 By March 1909, Commissioner Watchorn was actively discussing the feasibility of photographing all immigrant arrivals at Ellis Island and other immigration stations. A number of syndicated newspaper articles reported on an unrealized plan that partly overlaps with what was already being done with "known" would-be-immigrant convicts, as well as with the composition of some of Sherman's photographs. The proposal revealed: "One scheme is the installation of moving picture machines in the examining room at Ellis Island. There, the immigrants can be caught as they come before the medical inspectors. The immigrants form in lines and it will be easy to get a profile of them. After the examination they are required to walk down a narrow lane and turn sharply to the left. A moving picture apparatus at that point can catch the full front of the immigrants. Each immigrant can be tagged with a number that will show in the picture. The tag will correspond to the man's name on the ship's steerage list." [To detect criminals: Robert Watchorn's plan for photographing immigrants. The Grand Island Daily Independent, 8 April 1909, p.4. See also an earlier report on the proposal: Photographing of all immigrants upon arrival is proposed. The Washington Post, 30 March 1909, p.6.
9 NARA records indicate the practice was discontinued in May 1909, just eight months after Sargent died in office and only a couple of months after the far more extensive effort to capture immigrant arrivals on film was apparently dismissed. It remains unclear when the last deportation files for those accused of being a prostitute, anarchist or ex-convict were sent from immigration stations across the U.S. to the Bureau of Immigration.