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Augustus F. Sherman: Ellis Island Portraits 1905-1920 Hardcover – June 15, 2005
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*Starred Review* The 97 full-page, sepia-tone portraits in this handsome volume are heartbreakingly beautiful. They were taken by amateur photographer Sherman, a clerk on Ellis Island during the period of mass immigration to America in the early twentieth century. Most of his subjects were immigrants detained at Ellis Island for further interrogation; the flat, impersonal captions that describe them tell a story of their own: "English-Jews," "Moroccan men and boy," "Greek woman," and "Tattooed German stowaway deported May 11." First you look at the pictures; then Peter Mesenholler's brilliant historical essay makes you go back to look at them again with a fresh perspective: this was a period of fierce American nativism, when the huddled masses of Latins, Slavs, Jews, etc., were regarded as dregs that threatened Anglo-Saxons with "racial suicide." Does the focus on elaborate national dress in the photos reinforce stereotype and the same exoticism as in Curtis' famous images of Native Americans? In fact, some of the photos are of distinct types, but their body language and expression also make you see close-up the wrenching personal anguish, loss, courage, and hope. Patrons researching family roots will want to examine these images, but the book will be of equal interest as a primary-source piece of American history and as a way to make connections to contemporary immigration issues. An exhibition of images from this book will open in June at the Ellis Island Museum and will then travel around the world. Hazel Rochman
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved
About the Author
Augustus F. Sherman worked as a clerk in Ellis Island from 1892-1925. He was an untrained, yet highly gifted photographer who created hundreds of images documenting the new arrivals to America. At the time, his photographs were not taken in an official capacity but used by immigration officials to promote the work of Ellis Island. In 2008, the Minnesota History Center opened a new exhibit celebrating the human story of the more than twelve million immigrants who entered the United States. Today, Sherman’s collections are housed in the Ellis Island Immigration Museum and the New York Public Library.
Peter Mesenhöller has been a research associate and part-time museum educator with the Rautenstrauch-Joest Museum of Anthropology, Cologne (Germany) since 1990/2001. He is author of Mismeasurements: Other Bodies in 18th and 19th Century Ethnology and Anthropology (2002) and Mundus Novus: The Image of America as Mirrored in European Print Media from the 16th to the 20th century (1992). He has been a freelance curator since 1984. His shows include Picturing Paradise: Colonial Photography of Samoa 1875-1925, co-curated by Alison Devine Nordström (1995-1996) and Augustus Frederick Sherman: Ellis Island Portraits 1905-1920 (2005-2008), co-curated with Diana Edkins.
Top customer reviews
If you are looking for a portrait of your grandmother/father who came through Elllis Island, this is probably not the book you will find them in.
Rather, these portraits focus on immigrants wearing unusual native clothing/costumes; religious or military outfits; large family groups; ethnic groups; and even those suffering from congenital birth defects. Included also is a group of deportees whose crimes range from anarchy to being a stowaway.
Sherman sort to take as many photographs as possible in natural light, so the reader sees children playing in the Ellis Island "playground" - located on the roof; or a group of ladies from the Caribbean standing on the front "lawn"; a family from Africa; and much more.
A delightful glimpse at Ellis Island's early history - one wishes there were many more photographs the reader could view.
According to essayist Peter Mesenholler, Sherman was interested in anthropological documentation of the different physical characteristics of these Eastern, Western and Southern European proud folk. He captured the inherent pride of origin of these people who often donned their finest native folk costumes as they entered New York harbor. Sherman was sensitive to the psyches of his 'sitters', knowing that in addition to the overwhelming urge to enter America, the Land of Dreams, each of these people brought with them the memories both sad and happy of their native lands, 'heroes' if you will who were brave enough to leave their roots and aspire to higher dreams and goals.
These one hundred portraits are some of the more wrenchingly beautiful from this important time of mass immigration into America, images of the folk who would comprise the melting pot that we so cherish as our national treasure. All of this art is gained by the honest eye of a non-professional photographer who took the interest and care to pass along that rarefied moment of our country's history. And there is much to be learned from slowly perusing the faces and honest captions of these important photographs.
The quality of the reproductions in sepia-toned presentation is superb as is the accompanying wise essay by Peter Mesenholler. There are few books of photography that can be more widely acclaimed than this. Very highly recommended. Grady Harp, July 05