...whenever there were unusually attractive or different immigrants, they called on Mr. Sherman to take their pictures and he did. He did some very fine work, I think.
There are two things I wanted to do. I wanted to show the things that had to be corrected.
I wanted to show the things that had to be appreciated.
Setting the stage
During its heyday from the early 1890s to the 1920s, Ellis Island received approximately 80% of all immigrant arrivals to the United States.3 It wasn’t just Europeans who trekked through the busy halls of the immigration station but also individuals leaving from every part of the globe—making it an ideal spot to witness a broad range of peoples who came, or tried to come, to the United States as immigrants. The proportion of emigrants from non-European countries arriving at Ellis Island was markedly less than at immigration stations in San Francisco, El Paso or Galveston, but Ellis Island was (transitorily) a more ethnically and religiously diverse place than usually portrayed. This diversity was reflected through immigrant photography at the time, though often in an imbalanced manner. Looking at the total run of Sherman’s 200+ Ellis Island portraits, for instance, we see that arrivals from countries which consistently provided less immigrants (e.g., The Netherlands) were often selected to be photographed by Sherman more frequently than people from countries that provided more immigrants (e.g., Italy), or at least with the photos that have been preserved. Considering that Sherman took photos at Ellis Island over a twenty-year period and that photography was not part of his core responsibilities, perhaps it’s not surprising that in retrospect his body of work lacks consistency. In any case, photomechanical reproductions of “immigrant types” chosen by newspaper and magazine editors and book authors continued this imbalance, making for a skewed portrait of what immigrant flows to the U.S. were actually like, then and now.4
Regardless of the disconnect, "exotic" arrivals possessed a visual pull that photographers found difficult to resist. Capturing the broad range of racial/ethnic types was therefore a key goal for most photographers making portraits of Ellis Island arrivals, including Sherman and Hine, but even earlier. When Ellis Island opened in 1892—just a year after the Federal government had taken over the responsibility immigration laws and regulations from states—many of the station's first commissioners, as well as D.C. Bureau of Immigration Commissioners General Powderly and Sargent, already possessed a keen interest in photography. In fact, the two Immigration Commissioners General whose terms each overlapped with much of Sherman and Hine's photographic work, were trained photographers prior to Ellis Island’s creation and even well before they started long careers with the federal government.
Frank P. Sargent, Commissioner General of Immigration (1902–1908) and Terence Powderly, Commissioner General of Immigration (1897–1902) were both avid photographers. According to an 1888 sketch of Sargent’s life, his early career path “had been apprenticed to learn the art of photography… [and he] mastered in all of its details, and practiced it in Manchester, Philadelphia, and Haverhill, Massachusetts, until 1879.”5 Sargent certainly knew the trade, and so when he continued and expanded upon an earlier request from Powderly for immigration stations to provide the D.C. Bureau of Immigration with “immigrant type photos” for various purposes between 1904 and 1908, he would have known exactly what he was looking for.
Besides a busy career quite similar in trajectory, Powderly was also a lifelong photographer, making thousands of still preserved photos. He took his own photos at Ellis Island while serving as the country’s top immigration official and later on as head of the Immigration Service's Division of Information (1907-1921).6 Both Sargent and Powderly interacted with Augustus Sherman throughout their terms, so it’s possible that there was a transference of interest, if not skills, that contributed to Sherman’s own uptake of photography.7
But even before Powderly and Sargent took office—and before Sherman and Hine started their camera work at Ellis Island—immigrant arrivals at the port of New York were being photographed, albeit in a less systematic way. Shortly after the opening of the first iteration of Ellis Island in 1892, John B. Weber, Commissioner of Immigration at the port of New York (1890-1893), received a large scrapbook filled with portraits of immigrant arrivals made at the Barge Office and from the very first days of Ellis Island. These early portraits were made by Eugene Wellington Austin (1835-1923), a photographer who made at least 50 photo portraits of immigrant arrivals between 1890 and 1892, while working at the Barge Office and at the just-opened Ellis Island Immigration Station; he also captured a photograph of Annie Moore and her brothers Phillip and Anthony, considered to be the first immigrants processed at Ellis Island on 1 January 1892. Austin was not a federal employee but more of a contractor. Between 1890 and at least 1894, he successfully bid on and paid for a "rental privilege" to operate the currency exchange concession at the Barge Office and Ellis Island, where he would convert foreign currency or gold to U.S. dollars for immigrant arrivals. Like Sherman, he wasn't a professional photographer but was keenly interested in making portraits of arrivals that he came into contact with, the end result of which would go far beyond a solo hobby.8 It’s not clear if Barge Office officials requested the photos or whether he acted totally on his own, or whether he was using his own equipment, but shortly after Austin took his first portraits, they made their way to Thure de Thulstrup, an illustrator who would create more than a dozen faithful and well-executed sketches based on his photos. De Thulstrup’s sketches, not the original photographs, were used in a feature article titled “Landing the immigrant” in an 1891 edition of Harper’s Weekly and elsewhere, marking an early deployment of “immigrant type” representations in print, an Ellis Island-to-press workflow that would flourish a decade later with Sherman and Hine.9 10
Sherman started working at Ellis Island in 1894, so it’s unclear if he knew of Austin’s photos, but he was in close contact with Commissioner Powderly, who in 1902, had contracted another New York-based photographer named J.H. Adams to take “immigrant type” photos at Ellis Island for use in Bureau of Immigration Annual Reports; Powderly also requested that “immigrant type” photos be taken at all immigration stations by capable staff for the same purpose. Adams’ Ellis Island portraits quickly made their way into both Bureau Annual Reports and the press.11
The production of “immigrant type” photography would continue on under Sargent’s direction, coinciding with the time period that Sherman appears to have started his Ellis Island portraits.
J.H. (Joseph Henry) Adams, 1867-1941, was many things. First a writer and photographer, then an educator, and eventually a fabulously successful inventor, Adams’ creative works has been overshadowed by his business success. During the early 1900s, Adams paid numerous visits to Ellis Island, taking many dozens of immigrant type photos while under contract with the U.S. government or on assignment for different magazines. He would write about immigrant types as well and appears to have syndicated both his non-fiction work and photography from at least the early 1900s on. Unlike Sherman and most "immigrant type" photography used in media at the time, Adams claimed authorship for his photographs, inserting a stylized "JA" in the corner of many portraits or appending his name in a byline. His writing and photography are at times imbued with a more sensitive and empathetic eye than many of his more well-known Progressive Era contemporaries, but both are also inconsistent and frequently cast individuals from the "new immigration" in a suspicious light. Census records show Adams listed as an "Artist" in Brooklyn, New York City between 1900–1910; his home was just 6–8 miles away from Augustus Sherman's.
Commissioner Sargent also kept folios of "immigrant type" photos taken by J.H. Adams for his “personal study”. Likely inherited from Powderly, the photos in this collection date from 1902 and bear a resemblance to much of Sherman’s and to some extent, Hine’s, later Ellis Island portraits. As with Sherman and Hine, Adams appears to have primarily taken portraits of detained immigrants; his work saw wide distribution in the press over a long period (1902-1920s), even turning up in the UK press and a Norwegian book in 1904.12 Adams’ immigrant portraits were also featured in publications alongside Sherman’s earliest work and at times his photographic work has been credited as Sherman’s.13 While there is scant mention of Adams' photographic work in the historical record, it's not inconceivable that his and Sherman's paths crossed at Ellis Island during the early 1900s. Under contract from the U.S. government, Adams made photo portraits of detained immigrants in order to visually capture the broad range of the "new immigration", granting Bureau of Immigration officials like Powderly and Sargent a front row seat to the flow. In terms of their photographic work at Ellis Island, Sherman appears to have picked up exactly where Adams left off in 1903.
Towards the end of William Williams’ first term as Commissioner of Immigration at the port of New York, a short article appeared in the 12 April 1904 edition of the Buffalo Evening News that concerned a group of Argentine Patagonians who arrived at Ellis Island. The article mentioned that “Commissioner Williams desired to have the party photographed but the Patagonians thought the camera was a 'bad machine' and covered their faces." The group of seven Patagonians were headed to the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair, to literally be put on display in “living exhibitions” for fair goers. Not at all unusual for the time, Williams was keen on photographically documenting the exotic stream of would-be immigrants at Ellis Island and the press was eager to report on the attempt, even without a photograph. Although it doesn’t appear that Patagonians were photographed, at least two other exotic groups also heading to the Fair from India and the Ottoman-controlled lands, were. Several photos of these groups were made at Ellis Island in April 1904 by Sherman, making for perhaps his earliest dated photos.14
Photographs of immigrants and the facilities and staff at Ellis Island, the Barge Office, and Castle Garden, go back to the establishment of each institution. What started with Austin and Adams would continue on with Sherman, Hine and others, but each photographer's work is quite distinct. By July 1904, Sherman was actively taking “immigrant type” photo portraits, prints of which would later be included in Williams’ own personal scrapbook.15
Hine's photographic work at Ellis Island would commence the following year, in 1905.
Augustus Sherman's island studio
Though much less is known about Sherman's work and personal life than that of Hine's, it's clear that both were busy men but with differing commitments and ambitions. Sherman held a number of increasingly important positions at Ellis Island during the course of his 30 years of service at the busiest immigration station in the world, positions that kept him on the front lines of the "flood of new immigration". After some 15 years serving as Clerk, Sherman was promoted to Chief Clerk in June 1909, a position he held until October 1921. By November 1921, his position had changed to that of Confidential Secretary to the Commissioner, continuing as one of the highest-ranking employees at Ellis Island—and often signing documents and correspondence as the Acting Commissioner.16 However, from November 1922 until his death in February 1925, Sherman's slow but steady climb to the upper tier of Ellis Island's Executive Division was ended with a significant demotion. For unspecified reasons, during the last few years of his career at Ellis Island, Sherman was back to serving as a Clerk, now in the Special Inquiry Division, with a much-reduced salary and a more procedural set of work duties; this demotion would make for his final position at Ellis Island. Sherman's last definitively dated photo portrait (Galician Woman) taken at the immigration station dates from June 1921, so it's conceivable that this late-career demotion is related to the end of his informal duties as photographer.
While the precise reasons for Sherman's photographic work still remains unclear, a few mentions of him in contemporaneous periodicals shed some light on what must have been a broad and fairly liberal set of responsibilities, particularly during his time as Chief Clerk. It seems Sherman not only had some discretion in his interactions with detained immigrants, but was also to some extent responsible for certain aspects of their welfare.
Unfortunately, there are few examples to draw upon, leaving immigration and photo historians with an incomplete picture of Sherman's life and any definitive underlying motivations for his photographic work.17 While his photos were widely distributed during his lifetime, only a handful of mentions of his name and work in contemporaneously printed materials have surfaced. One account of Sherman's work during the WWI era is quite revealing and exposes a wider pattern of his involvement with detained immigrants, suggesting interactions quite far afield from things one might expect from an Ellis Island clerk. In January 1916, Sherman invited a New York musical theater troupe to give a Sunday afternoon concert for over 400 detained immigrants at Ellis island. A few days after the performance, a Greenwich Village based arts magazine gave an accounting of the event which mentions Sherman by name. In it, Ellis Island detainees are referred to as "his [i.e. Sherman's] charges" and implies that Sherman was quite involved in their daily lives, at least by way of his programming recreational activities for detainees.
Sometimes referred to as "Americanization concerts", events like the one described above were regularly advertised in the New York press for years. By repurposing parts of Ellis Island as a concert/lecture hall on makeshift stages, the public was invited to enjoy an afternoon of music, theatre, dance, or lectures and speeches within earshot of hundreds of detained aliens in legal limbo. The scale was as grand as the typical flow of immigrants during peak years: 2000-7000 could attend in the Registry Hall or in open air concerts outside Ellis Island facilities. An astonishing array of performers and special guest speakers were featured for this odd pairing of audiences—one captive and under guard and the other free to come and go as they please.
...the artists did their best to add a few pleasant hours to the lives of these poor, involuntary residents of the Island. [...] The Sunday afternoon concert, one of the many humanitarian innovations Mr. Sherman has put into effect, is looked forward to eagerly by the detained immigrants; this is one more proof that music, good music, finds a quick response in the heart of every human being, even if he doesn't know the technical meaning of what he hears and what appeals to him.18
Running from at least January 1914 until the early 1920s, the events included lectures and speeches (in English, sometimes with simultaneous interpretation) by prominent figures, such as: Samuel Gompers, Henry Morgenthau Sr., a New York Governor, New York State Senators, two Secretaries of Labor, a retired General, as well as a NY Police inspector who dramatically arrived on the island by airplane. There were also musical performances by various groups and individuals, including the full National Symphony Orchestra, Metropolitan Opera Company singers, a monastery choir, Hippodrome artists—and, in 1920, Ellis Island played host to the great Italian operatic tenor Enrico Caruso.
Besides his involvement in arranging at least some of the Sunday events, Sherman also made a wide shot photograph of a "Ukrainian" concert at Ellis Island in 1916, offering a rare glimpse into what appears to be a pleasant if highly-choreographed, moment of reprieve.19 What we can glean from this is that the people Sherman worked with throughout his long career—whether detained immigrants, Sunday concert attendees, steamship captains, Ellis Island employees, or missionaries stationed at Ellis Island—were intermittently documented by him in photographs. Unlike Hine, little more can objectively be said for Sherman, as no official or written record of his photographic work has yet emerged—save for the photos themselves and the captions he added to some of his prints. Attempting to put his photographic output, and how it was deployed, into the context of his workplace can, however, reveal insights into a variety of competing motivations. A fuller context of the use of Sherman's work is developed in the following chapters.
Sherman and Hine's photographic output differ substantially, as does the subsequent reuse in books, journals, and newspapers from the early 1900s to the 1940s. But if Sherman, previously thought to be more or less a bureaucratic clerk, was responsible for "humanitarian innovations" at Ellis Island, then his and Hine’s motivations to photograph immigrants might not have differed as starkly as one might suspect. Or the innovations, such as the Sunday concerts, were utilized to discourage restlessness on the island, particularly during the chaotic WWI era when Ellis Island housed a high number of long-term detainees. Regardless, the differences in their extant Ellis Island photographs are enough to keep Sherman the Immigration Service employee and Hine the social reformer, quite apart from one another.
Lewis Hine's correctionsThroughout his life, Hine deliberately focused his lens on the "nobodies of the world", as the lifelong champion of his work, Paul Kellogg, observed in Hine's obituary for The Survey in 1940, even when popular culture and social reform publications had abandoned such an approach as too harsh, too depressing. Most Ellis Island immigrants certainly qualified as "nobodies" during the early 1900s, but determining where Hine (and Sherman) stood on the immigration issue is not a straightforward matter.
While Lewis Hine has left a far more substantial and less ambiguous legacy regarding the intentions for his work, not all of his Ellis Island portraits escape the limited "immigrant type" approach he and other photographers were employing. Although Hine was unequivocal in his stated reasons for photographing child laborers, he was less so when it came to his earlier work at Ellis Island. That Hine empathized with his subjects throughout his career is not disputed, but that he understood them as individuals is another matter. Nevertheless, his reasons for photographically documenting immigrant arrivals at Ellis Island are hard-coded into his photographs and, to a much lesser extent, mirrored in his writing.20
Hine was not on assignment when he first traveled to Ellis Island, but was eager to start combining his passion for social justice issues with his developing interest in photography. In this case, his passion was roused by an apparent dissatisfaction with the status quo (read restrictionist) approach to the immigration issue, and, we assume, the predominate manner immigrants were being represented in photographs. At Ellis Island, these twin passions of social justice and photography would quickly merge; it was time to apply correction. Given his belief that "[p]hotography can light up darkness and expose ignorance," Hine took his altruism, ambition, enthusiasm, and burgeoning photographic skills to Ellis Island, seeking to capture through his photo-studies the essence of what everyone else was missing with the "new immigrants." He returned with portraits that expressed empathy from the photographer and for the viewer—as well as the dignity, and above all, the humanity of his subjects.21
Between 1905 and 1926, Hine made numerous trips to Ellis Island. With each visit he returned home with dozens of new takes on old world arrivals, each imbued with his own sensitive and keen sense of correction. As an outsider, he had much less access to the people that made Ellis Island run and focused instead on the faces in the flood of arrivals. However, during the last years of his visits he included social workers and volunteers who operated out of Ellis Island in the frame; this was no accident. Hine had experienced both the peak immigration years—when the Great Registry Hall would have been bursting past capacity—as well as the post-1924 Immigration Act version of Ellis Island which at times turned the immigration station into an empty cathedral or a deserted outpost, as the Commissioner of Immigration at Ellis Island, Benjamin M. Day, said in an interview around the time of Hine's 1926 visit:
Hine's 1926 series of photo-studies collected in a 1938 portfolio for the Russell Sage Foundation depart significantly from his 1905/08 photos in a number of ways, but besides an obvious heightened choreography among the subjects, the sense of physical space within the frame is greatly expanded. In this way, his 1926 photos correspond with the multi-layered aftereffects of an unequivocal victory for immigration restrictionists. Many of Hine's 1926 Ellis Island portraits convey a sense that the flood had been tamed, and the few(er) quota arrivals that came from problem countries were going to make good, productive Americans, thanks in part to improved governmental efficacy and the deft intervention of empathetic social workers and charities.
To any one familiar with Ellis Island in the old days, the station today seems deserted. The contrast is especially marked between the present comparative quiet and the days when steamships were racing to New York, crowded with immigrants, in the hope of beating the quota law. [...] I have been impressed by the present high type of immigrant. The elimination tests are severe and as a result the undesirables who used to pour into America are held back.22
By 1933, the ever progressive Survey Graphic, a frequent publisher of Hine's work, was declaring that "Today's Ellis Island is in its way a horologion; symbol of bygone things and states of mind."
In many of the frames included in the 1938 portfolio, Hine's pre-1924 Immigration Act work is placed side-by-side with his post-1924 Immigration Act photos, achieving a heightened sense of correction. Herein lies one of the reason why one shouldn't read Hine's Ellis Island work, or even Hine, as necessarily pro immigration or as an anti-immigration restrictionist. The contrast between these two distinct periods of his work is quite clear: "undesirables" had been replaced by a "high type of immigrant." Everything was now under control.
What Hine actually thought of immigrant Americans—or of the widespread fear that the "new immigrants" were rapidly displacing "old stock" Americans during the early 1900s—is less clear, just as it was with many other progressive reformers. Were each of the new immigrant groups equally capable of being adequately assimilated and Americanized? Towards the end of his life, Hine desired to address the issue directly in an application he made for a Guggenheim fellowship in October 1940. Hine proposed to "find many individuals that adequately represent their racial stocks", like the ones he photographed at Ellis Island, and follow them to their present, settled lives in the United States. He proposed to photograph such immigrant Americans in their own environments, in order to let people see for themselves the degree of assimilation and integration they had attained:
It doesn't appear that Hine was interested in making individuality or identity a part of these new photo-studies, but rather to show how the new subjects represented their "racial stock," much as he had done in his Ellis Island work. Hine had already been declined twice by Guggenheim and never received a response for this third application. He died the following month on 3 November 1940.
If 'Our strength is our people', then this project should give us light on the kinds of strength we have to build upon as a nation. Much emphasis is being put upon the dangers inherent in our alien groups, our unassimilated or even partly Americanized citizens—criticism based upon insufficient knowledge. A corrective for this would be better facilities for seeing, and so understanding, what the facts are, both in possible dangers and real assets.23
The door closesSherman's photos from the post-peak immigration years also indicate a departure from his earlier work. During this time, he focused less on "immigrant types" and, it appears, more on "exotics" as well as people that fell outside the borders of what was considered physical normalcy for the time. Unlike his earlier work, Sherman started including the names of individuals and arrival details with greater frequency. However, in a number of cases such individuals were ultimately deported (e.g. Enrico Cardi , Emma Goldman , and Osman Louis ), or had come to the U.S. under contract as sideshow performers (e.g. "Hindu boy" [Thumbu Sammy, 1911], "Wild Abyssinians" [Issa Somalis, 1914], and "African Bushman" [Franz Taibosh, 1918]), making them less-than-typical arrivals.
Throughout the 1910s and 1920s, Sherman was still working with detained individuals, who continued to make up the majority of his photographic subjects, but it was also during this time that decidedly eugenic concepts and principles were entering into the daily routines of Ellis Island employees. Did this increasingly pervasive and influential applied science influence Sherman's photographic work? Unfortunately, Sherman left no real writings; we only have his images, captions, and the way the photos were selectively deployed to get at the photographer's motivation. Based on what is extant, however, one sees definite parallelism, perhaps even alignment with some of the preoccupations of the "science of human improvement."24
Eugenics was poised to intervene with the ongoing immigration debate, eventually meeting with spectacular success, and photography would be a key tool in communicating its arguments.
While Sherman gives us far more social diversity in his body of work than Hine, much of the portraits, at least by contemporary standards, unequivocally crosses the line into exploitation. At the time, however, a good portion of his photographic work fits squarely within the eugenic visual rhetoric and ideology of the time, both of which were fast becoming commonplace in various forms of media. Besides "normal" arrivals, Sherman also photographed would-be immigrants who displayed disabilities, circus and theatrical performers who had no intention, or much hope, of becoming U.S. citizens, numerous immigrants debarred from entry, (deported) tattooed stowaways, two muscle-bound wrestlers, a child deliberately posed to highlight his obesity, a cross-dresser, and a vegetarian "religious fanatic". Sherman's 1919 portrait of the soon to be deported anarchist, Emma Goldberg, who had already been in the U.S. for over 30 years before being expelled as an enemy alien, veers into the political. Hine didn't take such an erratic approach, nor did he have any of his sitters change into their native costumes before photographing them, strip subjects shirtless—one even naked—or give crude captions to photos such as "Wild Abyssinian Cannibals", as did Sherman.
Hine's concurrent work as an investigative photographer for the National Child Labor Committee played a tremendous part in helping to successfully lobby state legislatures, and ultimately Congress, for the reform of child labor laws from 1916 on. While Sherman's Ellis Island portraits were reproduced in print media and government publications from 1905 until at least the 1920s, primarily to bolster a negative portrayal of the new immigration, other photographer's Ellis Island work would also travel to the halls of Congress a few years later, but for a different kind of lobbying mission.
In 1921, over 50 rather grim Bertillon-style Ellis Island portraits were used strategically by Harry H. Laughlin, the 'Expert Eugenics Agent' for the House Committee on Immigration and Naturalization, to visually enhance his "analysis on the metal and the dross in America's modern melting pot." The anonymously-shot portraits are eerily reminiscent of Sherman's work, showing the perniciousness of the "immigrant type" photo as a rhetorical tool to advance eugenic arguments that often paired degeneracy with the new immigration. Laughlin's small audience during his years of testimony happened to be some of the most powerful legislative authorities that dealt with immigration issues—and their decisions and recommendations, many of which eventually became law, would stay on the books for decades to come. All of this was a long time in coming, but the work of Laughlin vis-à-vis the House Committee proved a decisive moment in the shift from immigration restriction to exclusion:
...Laughlin plastered the Committee room with charts and graphs showing ethnic differences in rates of institutionalization for various degenerative conditions, and verbally presented a barrage of data about the mental and physical inferiority of recent immigrant groups. These data included a 'rogue's gallery' of photographs of 'defectives' taken at Ellis Island, which purported to show 'Carriers of the Germ Plasm of the Future American Population.' Laughlin was a good showman, and effectively combined statistics and visual aids to create a strong fear of the feeble-minded in his listeners.25
Laughlin testified frequently, and consequentially, before the House Committee on Immigration and Naturalization between 1920 and 1929. The purpose of his Congressional appearances was to "to aid in the framing and the enactment of legislation for immigration-control based on sound and patriotic eugenical policy."26 Just before being included in an "Exhibit of immigration studies" which supplemented Laughlin's 1922 testimony, this 'rogue's gallery' of photos had been used in a large booth display at the 2nd International Exhibition of Eugenics / 2nd International Congress of Eugenics that took place at the American Museum of Natural History, where it was viewed by perhaps thousands of attendees. The congressional exhibit stayed on the walls of a committee room for three months prior to the actual hearing, giving plenty of time for Committee members to be influenced by Laughlin's scientific racism, manipulated data, spurious correlations, and exploitative visuals.27
Years later, Laughlin sought to have copies of Sherman's Ellis Island portraits made for use in pro-Eugenics publications.28
In the end, documentary photography was used to successfully help influence Congressional lawmaking and public opinion, just in massively different directions. Likewise, despite the fact that both Sherman and Hine took photos concurrently and in roughly the same confined areas at Ellis Island, their work shows far more divergence than overlap.
Looking at the whole of Sherman and Hine's Ellis Island work, it's clear that both focused their cameras mostly on the anonymous, exotic alien—impoverished or otherwise—as subjects to neatly fit into racial types. On this, both photographer's were consistent, particularly during their earliest years of their work in photographing arrivals. However, there are significant departures in their work, differences that involve content, visibility, and they way the work of each was published during their lifetimes; such differences should be studied further and not ignored. While it's evident that both photographers' Ellis Island work was featured in a variety of publications during the early 1900s, the scale and reach of Sherman's work far exceeded that of Hine's; by today's standards, their syndicated deployment would border on media saturation. Ironically, Sherman, as an employee of the U.S. government, was almost never credited for his widely seen work, while Hine's work, which initially was mostly relegated to limited run journals with low visibility, was consistently credited.29 Despite the ubiquity of Sherman's work during his lifetime, it quietly disappeared from the public record just as Hine's work was being rediscovered.
By the 1970s, no one was writing about Sherman's Ellis Island work, let alone his life, while Hine's reputation had risen to that of one of the masters of 20th century photography.
Out of anonymity
Like other documentary photographers of the day, both Sherman and Hine did not record or at least divulge the names of most of their photographic subjects—making research into the details surrounding their immigration and ultimate fate near impossible to determine. Anonymity aside, their photos have cast a long shadow and continue to circulate in various formats. They also happen to be some of the earliest surviving photographs that capture the early, or even first, encounter of certain ethnic groups with American soil, standing as symbolic representations of a people's geographic spread.30
Perhaps their amorphousness is part of the allure; people see in them what they want to see, or what others have wanted. Given their ubiquity, it is important to say something beyond the often misleading captions about who they were, regardless of whether they were actual immigrants or not.
But trying to identify and, if possible, determine what became of the subjects in Sherman and Hine's portraits can be a frustrating endeavor, taking the researcher through a myriad of false starts, conflicting data and dead ends. Fortunately, new resources and archival platforms are helping to make the task slightly less impossible. While on this path, I discovered that others have tried to do something similar because I caught the trail of their research while conducting my own. However, in most of those cases, their conclusions lie in unexpected and nearly unreachable places—and can't be found unless you already know the names.
In any case, trying to deanonymize Sherman and Hine's portraits was the real starting point for this project. I was mainly interested in digging deeper into their photos because many struck me as captivating but oddly incomplete. However, it seemed that no matter how I approached the task of putting names to faces, I was met with repeated frustration and so I abandoned the searches after seemingly being led down a hall of mirrors; 100-year-old photos of unidentified individuals don't give up their secrets easily. I resumed the search after realizing that a number of the photos contained missed clues that, coupled with some dogged research and a bit of luck, can reveal the subjects' identities and change the way we look at and into them.
Working non-linearly with primary and secondary sources (e.g. Federal passenger arrival manifests, contemporaneous news reporting, transcripts of Special Inquiry hearings, and court documents) has me helped unmask a number of the subjects, revealing some remarkable journeys behind their suspended moments at Ellis Island.31
1 Ellis Island Oral History Project, Series NPS, No. 111: Interview of Emma Corcoran by Harvey Dixon, September 23, 1978. Working in Ellis Island's Statistical Division and Executive Offices from 1904-1916, Corcoran's interview contains one of the few personal recollections of Sherman. Another from an anonymous Ellis Island employee mentions: "...if you see an interesting face, an arresting costume, contact Gus Sherman immediately!" See: Temple, Andrea, and June F. Tyler. “Ellis Island: A Historical Perspective.” Americans All, 16
2 Bogre, Michelle. 2017. Photography as activism: images for social change. Amsterdam: Focal Press, xii.
3 Cannato, Vincent J. 2009. American Passage : The History of Ellis Island. 1st ed. New York: Harper. 3.
4 See, for example, Sherman’s work in "Some of our immigrants." National Geographic 18, No. 5 (1907): 317-334. Available via Internet Archive and "Our foreign-born Citizens." National Geographic 31, No. 2 (1917): 95-130. Available via Internet Archive. Since prints of Sherman’s Ellis Island portraits have fallen into the Public Domain and been digitized by The New York Public Library, the U.S. National Park Service, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, there has been a resurgence in the deployment of his work, with frequent claims in news media that the portraits represent the face of early 20th century immigration to the United States.
5 "Life of F.P. Sargent, Grand Master" from Souvenir of the 14th Annual Convention of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen, 1888. [Terre Haute, IN]: Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen, 1888; p. 15. Available via Internet Archive.
6 Over 1250 of Powderly’s photographs have been digitized by The Catholic University of America's Mullen Library, including a number taken at Castle Garden and Ellis Island. See the Terence Vincent Powderly Photographic Prints.
7 Peter Mesenhöller suggests that Powderly may have provided the spark, if not training, for Sherman as a photographer. See: Sherman, Augustus F. and Mesenhöller, Peter. 2005. Augustus F. Sherman : Ellis Island Portraits 1905-1920 First ed. New York: Aperture. 7-8.
8 As with Sherman and Hine's work to come more than a decade later, Austin's photos followed a similar path of creation-organization-distribution that to led their use in media and through public lectures organized by Christian Churches. Their subjects would overlap thematically as well. According to one newspaper clipping from 1894, "...[Austin] has taken the only systematic series of photographs of all classes of immigrants that has ever been attempted. These represent individuals, families, and groups of every nation of the classes coming to our shore, including some of those who were returned by the government. The most of this collection, taken just as they landed, in the costumes of the different countries. [...] Mr. Austin has made a careful study of the influence of immigration upon our society, customs and industries, and this statistical lecture, illustrated by the photographs with a stereopticon, is full of information as well as lively interest. It has been delivered before a number of churches and societies, and always elicits much praise." See: A DAY WITH THE IMMIGRANTS Passaic Daily News, Passaic, New Jersey, 25 Oct 1894, Thursday, Page 4.
9 Austin and Weber are briefly discussed in Pegler-Gordon, Anna. 2021. Closing the Golden Door : Asian Migration and the Hidden History of Exclusion at Ellis Island. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 5-7.
10 Ralph, Julian. “Landing the Immigrants” Harper’s Weekly 35, no. 1818 (October 24, 1891): 821–824. Available via Internet Archive.
11 Multiple entries into NARA’s U.S. Subject Index to Correspondence and Case Files of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, 1903-1959, indicate that Adams was employed by the federal government to take photographs at Ellis Island around 1902-03. However, any fuller documentation on this matter at NARA has not been preserved or cannot be located. See, for example, a card from NARA’s related Name Index that documents correspondence between the Bureau of Immigration and J.H. Adams concerning “Pay for photos at E.I (Ellis Island) and “Work – E.I.”
12 A large collection of Adams' work in the form of "display cards" has been preserved by Harvard Art Museums, many of which contain the same portraits used in government documents, contemporaneous press, and other publications. Items in the Harvard collection, however, include captions that often contradict the captions used elsewhere; most of the immigrant portraits are described as people awaiting deportation, not of immigrants that were allowed entry. It remains unclear what this collection was used for. See: Races, Immigration: United States. New York. New York City. Immigrant Station: Regulation of Immigration at the Port of Entry. United States Immigrant Station, New York City. New York City, New York State, United States, 1903. For an example of Adams' work that appears in international press, see: THE ATLANTIC RATE WAR The Sphere London, England 6 Oct 1904, Saturday, Page 6; and in a monograph, see: Klaveness, Thoralv. 1904. Det norske Amerika : blandt udvandrede nordmænd : vore landsmænds liv og vilkaar i den nye verden, Kristiania : A. Cammermeyers forlag.
13 See, for example, Grose, Howard B. 1906. Aliens or Americans? New York : Young People's Missionary Movement.
1410 PATAGONIANS FOR WORLD'S FAIR HELD AT ELLIS ISLAND Buffalo Evening News Buffalo, New York 12 Apr 1904, Tuesday, Page 1
15 Williams' papers were donated to the New York Public Library shortly after his death in 1947. See: William Williams Collection of Photographs of Ellis Island. Photography Collection. New York Public Library.
16 By the early 1890s, Sherman had moved from his home state of Pennsylvania to Greenwich Village, while he worked as private secretary to the NY City Police Commissioner during its scandal-ridden Tammany Hall days. He first took a position at Ellis Island in December 1894 as Private Secretary to the Commissioner of Immigration and remained a federal employee there until his death. A lifelong bachelor, he lived in just a few different residences in Greenwich Village, only a few miles from Ellis Island, for the rest of his life. See: Sherman, Augustus F., Service Record Card, 1894-1924; Immigration and Naturalization Service and Department of Commerce and Labor; National Archives and Records Administration, National Personnel Records Center, St. Louis, Missouri. For a biographical summary of Sherman's life and work at Ellis Island, see Moreno, Barry. 2004. Encyclopedia of Ellis Island. Westport, Conn: Greenwood Press, 219.
17 A small amount of correspondence between Sherman and Commissioner General of Immigration, Terence V. Powderly (1897-1902), has been preserved by the American Catholic History Research Center and University Archives. Most of the letters concern the 1902 McSweeney scandal and were sent from Sherman's home address to Powderly. In the letters, it's clear that Sherman remained a faithful ally of Powderly as the case dragged on and the overall tone of the letters is one of familiarity and mutual respect. As with all other material involving Sherman, there is no mention of his photographic work. However, it should be noted that Powderly himself was an avid and skilled amateur photographer, capturing many photos of Ellis Island facilities, immigrant landings and processing during his tenure at Ellis Island. Powderly did so just prior to Sherman's own photographic work commenced in 1904 and periodically returned to Ellis Island during the 1900s and 1910s to take photos of immigrant arrivals while serving as chief of the U.S. Immigration Bureau’s Division of Information from 1907 to 1921.
18 "Charles Edison's Little Thimble Theatre: A Performance on Ellis Island" in Bruno's Weekly, Vol. 2, no. 5, Jan. 29, 1916. Available via Hathitrust.
19 Besides facilitating the Sunday concerts, then Commissioner Frederic C. Howe made a number of changes to the environment in around Ellis Island, evident in Sherman's "Ukrainian Concert" photo: "The registry hall was lined with potted plants; flags were hung from the balcony; and large photographs of the presidents and historical events were placed upon the pillars." See: Miller, Kenneth E. 2014. From progressive to new dealer: Frederic C. Howe and American liberalism. University Park: Penn State University Press, 214.
20 Throughout his published writings and personal letters, Hine was consistent but not explicit in his overall views on immigration. Hine never mentions, let alone criticizes, the patently racist 1924 Immigration Act which caused the emptying out of Ellis Island; he also never commented on the vitriolic arguments made by immigration restrictionists who held sway with public opinion during the preceding years. For more background on some of the ambivalence that shadows much of Hine's Ellis Island work, see Pegler-Gordon, 2009, 153-164.
21 Bogre, M., 31.
22 "NEW CHIEF OF ELLIS ISLAND FINDS HIGHER TYPE OF ALIENS." New York Times (1923-Current File), May 16, 1926.
23 Hine, Lewis W., and Daile Kaplan. 1992. Photo story: selected letters and photographs of Lewis W. Hine. Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press. 174-175.
24 By the early 1910s, the protocols and conduct of immigration inspectors and medical officers at immigration stations like Ellis Island were shifting from developing "a more perfect system of exclusion", and onto implementing eugenically influenced methods of mental and physical inspection. For example, Dr. Howard A. Knox (Assistant Surgeon of the U.S. Public Health Service at Ellis Island) explained in a 1913 interview how a "doctrine of practical eugenics" was now being applied to the selection of immigrants at Ellis Island. Knox was referencing, in part, some new testing procedures that grew out of a visit to the island by the prominent eugenicist, Henry H. Goddard, who was invited to Ellis Island in 1913 to study and advise on the mental examination and testing of arrivals—in order to help inspectors better weed out the unfit. Goddard's work at Ellis Island quickly led to the establishment of a severely flawed and biased intelligence testing program for immigrant arrivals at Ellis Island that stayed in place for many years. Later visits included the noted economist and Eugenics crusader, Irving Fischer, who in 1922 accompanied a "Training Corps for Eugenical Field Investigators" from the Eugenics Record Office (ERO) to Ellis Island. A 1921 visit by the same group, was received by the Commissioner of Immigration and led by Ellis Island medical officers who "...conducted the class through the Detention Hospital, and explained the clinical symptoms and conditions present in certain types of would-be immigrants, which caused such persons to be detained pending deportation. On the evening of the same day, the class visited the side shows of Coney Island and held impromptu clinics at the stalls of various human 'freaks,' particularly the dwarfs, giants and microcephalic idiots." This Ellis-Island-to-Coney-Island trajectory occurred more than once for ERO visitors, and the subjects of their studies read like an inventory of Sherman's non-immigrant alien photo portraits. Further, in his 1921 testimony before the House Committee on Immigration and Naturalization, Laughlin, claimed that "[Before WWI]...we used to go there [Ellis Island] and have free access to the people and the records..." Given Sherman's extensive contact with immigrant detainees, the majority of which were the same class of arrivals eugenicists came to study, it's difficult to imagine his own work wasn't affected by the changes underfoot—or unaware of the physical traffic of eugenicists to Ellis Island, some of whom would conduct studies for weeks at a time.
25 Gelb, Steven A., Garland E. Allen, Andrew Futterman, and Barry A. Mehler. “Rewriting Mental Testing History: The View from the American Psychologist.” Sage Race Relations Abstracts 11.2 (May 1986): 28.
26 Handwritten cover to Congressional testimony 1920-24 about immigration. The Harry H. Laughlin Papers, Truman State University, papers, C-2-6,6. Available via Eugenics Archive.
27 The "exhibit" was in place from 13 December 1921, to 10 March 1922. See: United States, and Harry Hamilton Laughlin. 1923. Analysis of America's modern melting pot. Hearings before the Committee on immigration and naturalization, House of representatives, Sixty-seventh Congress, third session. November 21, 1922. Serial 7-C. Washington: Govt. print Off, 759. Available via HathiTrust.
28 In August 1929, four years after Sherman’s death, Laughlin wrote to Benjamin M. Day, Commissioner of Immigration at Ellis Island, asking if he could provide or recommend “… the best collection of pictures of immigrant types made at Ellis Island during the last few years.” Laughlin wanted to build up photo stock so the Eugenics Record Office could provide “illustrated material to accompany immigration papers”, including for the “Division of Publications of the Carnegie Institution of Washington” who were preparing an article on recent immigration trends and “desire[d] a few pictures of representative immigrant types.” Day responded that he knew of no “recent collection of pictures of immigrant types made at Ellis Island. In the hall we have some photographs that were taken some years ago.” Those portraits “in the hall” would have been Sherman’s work, and Laughlin wrote back that he wished to make copies of the these photos that had remained at Ellis Island after Sherman’s death. According to additional correspondence, Laughlin was keen to go ahead with this and asked if it was permissible for “one of our responsible men to copy the photographs of immigrants which are on the walls of your station…” It appears that Day ultimately accommodated Laughlin’s request, but I’ve not been able to track down the publication(s) in which Sherman’s photos were used. See: Letter(s) to Benjamin M. Day, Ellis Island, from H. H. Laughlin and Letter(s) to H. H. Laughlin from Benjamin M. Day, Ellis Island, 1929 August 8, 9, 12, 27. Harry H. Laughlin Papers, MS L1. Truman State University, Pickler Memorial Library, Special Collections and Museums.
29 Hine's Ellis Island work first appeared in the June and September 1908 editions of Charities and the Commons: A Weekly Journal of Philanthropy and Social Advance, a social work journal. By 1909, both Hine's Ellis Island and child labor work would be featured in The Survey (the successor to Charities) and in The Outlook, a New York weekly that included Theodore Roosevelt as contributing editor. Towards the end of Hine's life, his Ellis Island work would be prominently featured in U.S. Camera and minimally for Fortune (1939), but was consistently refused by Life Magazine for years before publishing his "Ellis Island Madonna" in 1939.
30 Some of the photos, and their mislabeling, have caused divisive arguments among (online) diaspora communities who sought to claim the photos as "their people", even developing proto-origin stories around Sherman's work. Because of this, I have been extra cautious when deriving ethnicity and identity. In each case where some ambiguity remained, I have consulted with experts in the fields of ethnology, anthropology, historians of photography, and linguistics to ensure sound conclusions.
31 Because I had to do quite a bit of detective work in order to unmask the photos, running the risk of making inadvertent errors, I've "shown my work" and the paths taken to the conclusions reached.
This page has paths:
This page references:
- AUGUSTUS F. SHERMAN: Ukrainian concert at Ellis Island – Sunday –June 4, 1916
- LEWIS W. HINE: German and Italian immigrants at Ellis Island [1926 & 1905]
- Carriers of the Germ-plasm of the Future American Population. Recent immigrants at Ellis Island
- AUGUSTUS F. SHERMAN: Hindoos and Parsees 
- LEWIS W. HINE: Handwork under the auspices of the D.A.R. and Immigrants detained at Ellis Island take time to be happy 
- "A Motherless Italian Child"
- Distributing Aliens among states [photos J.H. Adams]