By Bill Dobbins
The image that many have of Ellis Island, where so many immigrants landed in the United States for so many years, comes from the movie the Ellis Island scene in The Godfather 2 where young Vito Corleone first steps off the boat after it arrives in New York Harbor. He was one of a flood of immigrants who were Irish, Italian, German, Polish and a host of other nationalities. There were responding to the invitation of the poem by Emma Lazarus you still see on the Statue of Liberty:
“Give us your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breath free.”
But what few are aware of is that there was a photographer named Augustus Fredrick Sherman who did hundreds of photos of these new arrivals to America, giving us an extensive documentation as to what these immigrants looked like.
Sherman worked as a clerk at Ellis Island in the years 1892-1925. He was not a trained photographer but he became fascinated by the diverse origins and cultural backgrounds of this never ending flood of humanity. And so Sherman created an amazing series of portraits that gave us a compelling perspective on this significant period in American history.
Looking at these photos, and reflecting on the humanity of the subject of these photos, is particularly important today with all the controversy involving immigration and the frequent demonization of people trying to escape awful conditions in the countries from which they come and seeking to find better lives for themselves and their families in the US.
As Wikipedia reports, “Sherman took photographs from about 1904 until 1924. Considering the state of the art of photography in that era, with long exposures and huge box cameras, the fact he was able to capture so many images during his working life is amazing.”
“Sherman took photographs of families, groups, and individuals who were being detained either for medical reasons or for further interrogation. In some cases, such as his images of a gypsy family, the subjects of photographs were deported. Over the course of his career at Ellis Island, Sherman took more than 200 pictures, often encouraging his subjects to open their suitcases and put on their elaborate national costumes or folk dress. He captured images of Romanian shepherds, German stowaways, circus performers and women from Guadeloupe.”
These photos give us insight into immigration that took place in the late 19th century and early 20th century and resulted in something like 12 million people being processed through Ellis Island.
Incidentally, when you see Vito Corleone being detained at Ellis Island it was for medical reasons. There were actually very few legal barriers to immigration back in those times, except perhaps for the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. But in the early 20th century immigration law became much more restrictive, in some degree as a measure designed to limit the number of Mexicans and other Hispanics entering the US through its southern border.
The photos of Augustus Frederick Sherman serve as a reminder that whenever we are dealing with groups – such as immigrants, Syrians, Africans, victims of disasters or whatever – we need to remember that labels aside what we are talking about is people.
Bill Dobbins is a is a veteran photographer and videographer, based in Los Angeles, who has exhibited his fine art in two museums and a number of galleries, and published eight books, including two fine art photo books: