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.