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Ellis Island Portraits 1905-1920 by Augustus F. Sherman at the DePaul University Art Museum
Cossack Immigrants by Augustus F. Sherman. Courtesy of The DePaul University Art Museum.

CHICAGO, IL.-The DePaul University Art Museum opened the exhibit Augustus F. Sherman: Ellis Island Portraits 1905-1920 through June 13. From 1904 through 1920 Augustus F. Sherman, a registry clerk at Ellis Island, systematically photographed prospective immigrants to the United States; Romanian shepherds, Greek priests, Russian vegetarians, Moroccan children, often arrayed in elaborate national dress, seem remarkably close and present in these portraits. Together his images form a unique view of the flow of immigration in the early twentieth century, and at the same time reveal much about the political and social controversies that surrounded the issue. Seventy-five images from his archive are traveling to museums in Europe and the United States in an exhibition organized by the Aperture Foundation.

Ellis Island is at the tip of Manhattan and by the time its operation was closed down in 1954 (the immigration station had been opened there in 1892) it had seen the ‘processing’ of more than 12 million immigrants in establishing their right to enter the USA. Sherman was a keen amateur photographer and indulged his passion in recording the ethnic ‘types’ seeking to live in America during the time they were detained at Ellis Island while their applications were investigated. In the 20 years from 1905 he made 250 of these studies, almost half of which feature in this book. Although the work bears comparison with that of August Sander, compiled for his landmark People of the Twentieth Century, it pre-dates it by several years. Lewis Hine, too, photographed at Ellis Island, although his agenda was to portray his subjects as victims, a motive viewed sympathetically by civil rights’ supporters. A key element of these portraits lies in the subjects’ apparel; nearly all are togged out in national costume or folk dress which, along with their physiognomy - and in the case of the men a fine array of hirsute appendages - contributes to Sherman’s cataloguing of their ethnic variety, albeit in what today we would perceive as a worryingly stereotypical way. There is a suspicion that Sherman selected his subjects on the basis of their exotic appearance, a view bolstered by his inclusion of folk suffering congenital disabilities that would have qualified them for employment in the freak shows of the time. His portraits were published alongside tracts condemning immigration (of the wrong ‘types’) and occasionally in support of the right types - typically western Europeans with a few bob in their baggage. These issues, along with the place of Sherman’s work alongside that of Hine, Sander, E O Hoppé and others from around the same time, are discussed by Peter Mesenhöller in the introductory essay. A fascinating body of work, and a significant piece of (relatively) modern history.

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