Historic Photographs by an Ellis Island Clerk Are a Powerful Reminder of America’s Immigrant Roots
This past weekend, as thousands gathered at airports across the U.S. to protest Donald Trump’s executive order banning immigrants from seven predominantly Muslim countries, a striking image popped up on Instagram. It showed a man staring deeply into the camera. He wore a white turban and a shawl to match. It was easy to mistake it for a recent portrait, but the caption revealed otherwise: it dated back to Ellis Island in 1910, and was taken by Augustus Frederick Sherman, an immigration registry clerk with a passion for photography. The subject was an Algerian man, passing through the New York Harbor on his way to making a new life.
The photograph is one of over 200 taken by Sherman during his 33-year tenure at Ellis Island, between 1892 and 1925. During breaks from his daily rigmarole as a registry clerk, he’d ask travelers to sit for him. The resulting images show a diverse swathe of new Americans, hailing from Romania, Russia, Italy, Morocco, and Guadalupe, among others. They’ve become symbols of the one of the largest mass migrations that the world has ever seen—12 million immigrants, many looking to escape social and political turmoil in their home countries, came through Ellis Island during its 62 active years. Today, Sherman’s images are being deployed across social media sites as emblems of America’s rich cultural diversity.
On view at the Ellis Island National Museum of Immigration, and online in the New York Public Library’s digital collection, the photographs are detailed and intimate, many of them accompanied by a description from Sherman. The most powerful show individuals from the waist up, gazing straight at the camera. In one, we see a Romanian shepherd draped in a heavy coat lined with curly wool and decorated with scalloped edges. In another, a young Guadeloupean woman wears a floral dress, a headpiece, and a half-smile. Canadian Mary Johnson, who requested to be called Frank Woodhull, dons a fedora, glasses, and a mustache.
Idiosyncratic personalities and cultural traditions radiate from each image, though the portraits find unity in the stoic resilience of Sherman’s sitters, conveyed through intent stares and erect stances. Many of the subjects pose with hands on hips. The body of work brings together the widely varied backgrounds, beliefs, and customs of immigrants who entered into the U.S. through Ellis Island during its busiest years; in 1907, between 3,000 to 5,000 people landed at the entry point each day. Today, many Americans consider this generation of immigrants to be the bedrock of the country’s diverse heritage.
But while they’re vivid expressions of cultural heterogeneity, Sherman’s images aren’t without fault. They were usually labeled by Sherman not with the names of the individuals he photographed, but with the countries from which they came. The subjects’ elaborate clothing was not what they’d chosen to wear on their journeys; rather, Sherman encouraged them to don their best outfits—or most traditional—when he shot them. To some extent, the sitters are exoticized through Sherman’s lens, their difference emphasized above all else.
Despite these problems—and, in part, because of them—Sherman’s images stand as potent visual icons of a specific and influential moment in America’s past. They reveal the tensions that often accompany open borders, namely, a fascination with (or fear of) unfamiliar cultures that can quickly lead to stereotyping. Indeed his images were manipulated as anti-immigration propaganda in the 1906 book Aliens or Americans?, penned by minister Howard B. Grose, which warned of what he saw as the dangers that immigrants posed.
But the portraits are, above all, powerful records of the country’s most welcoming era to date. Today, more than one-third of America’s population—over 100 million living denizens of this nation—descend from the immigrants and refugees who gained entry through Ellis Island. In light of the new administration’s executive order, which many Americans are protesting as an unconstitutional violation of this country’s values, Sherman’s images carry symbolic force. They are also wielded proudly by the children and grandchildren and great grandchildren of immigrants, which make up the great majority of the American population.