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If it’s history that makes great leaders rather than the other way around, it’s the ability to acknowledge one’s place within that history—to admit its specificity and limitation, as well as being open to its manifold implication—that confers the same greatness upon photographers. The more frequent vanity of photographers who strain to achieve timelessness through affectation inevitably amounts to a forfeit of their medium’s reflexive ability to communicate with unequalled power what merely is.

 

Depending on your point of view, it’s either the triumph or accident of Augustus Sherman’s photographs to have portrayed with eloquence the remarkable and troubling particulars of an institution so fundamental to the definition of the American nation at the precise time of its rise to global power. Collected in a new edition by Aperture Foundation for the first time since their initial publication 100 years ago, Sherman’s small but stunning output depicts immigrants in a variety of tableaux around the Ellis Island induction center at the height of its operation.  The body of work is fairly anomalous: background on Sherman is spotty, and there is no thorough explanation why precisely he made the pictures that he did. Working in a highly placed position within the turn of the century American immigration bureaucracy (his actual title at Ellis Island was “senior clerk”), the photographs were not made to serve any specifically official function, and in any event possess too consciously stylistic and personalized a vision to be strictly utilitarian.



From Ellis Island Portraits: 1905-1920, by Augustus F. Sherman
Courtesy Aperture Foundation Publishing



The images show a plainly voyeuristic fascination with the most conspicuous aspects of foreignness: native costume splendor, exceptionally large families, social standing and criminal records and even hygiene. Much is made of physical disabilities and funny hats. Sherman’s relative lack of pictorial sophistication is equally endearing and menacing; the varying degree of stagedness in each of the pictures reveals itself in the faces of the subjects, alternatively bemused or abject, but most often disconcertingly wary of a situation in which they have so plainly surrendered all control. Clearly there is a timeliness to a book that demonstrates the origin of a world power’s gaze upon The Other. Crucial to this edition is the accompanying historical essay by Peter Mesenholler; without the benefit of that very able contextualization, so highly charged a group of pictures would almost certainly be crushed under the weight of their troubling beauty and mute implication.

 

Inevitably, a portrait project like this one has to reckon with the more exhaustive and renown paradigms of the genre established by Edward Curtis and August Sander. Though made for the most part contemporaneously with Sherman’s, the undertakings of Curtis and Sander each attains a more substantial vision, both in terms of their subject matter as well as their ambition as artistic achievements. Sherman’s work however has a unique historical vantage, one of deep and resonant importance to us at this instant. It’s to Sherman’s credit that his transparency of practice (a too rare sign of maturity in a photographer, and a talent that Curtis for the most part lacked) confirms upon him the singular legacy of any worthwhile photographer: the voice of his historical moment.

 

© Copyright Gil Blank

Augustus F. Sherman: Ellis Island Portraits 1905-1920
Published by Aperture

Originally published in Issue magazine, Number 8, 2005