|Amateur photographer Augustus F. Sherman took pictures of immigrants at Ellis Island in their native garb. An exhibit of his work is now at the National Heritage Museum. (photos COURTESY OF THE NATIONAL HERITAGE MUSEUM)|
The bureaucrat as inadvertent artist
LEXINGTON - The early 20th century had a mania for classification. The more complex modern life became, it seems, the more those in charge - thinkers no less than officials - sought to divide up that complexity into manageable categories.
Last year's "Social Documents" exhibition at Harvard's Sackler Museum demonstrated just how extensive that mania was in terms of social policy. August Sander's "People of the 20th Century," the greatest one-man undertaking in the history of photography, demonstrates the effect of that mania on the medium. "Augustus F. Sherman: Ellis Island Portraits 1905-1920," in its narrow yet deeply affecting way, shows the overlap between the two. Sherman was the bureaucrat as inadvertent artist.
The Sherman show, which runs at the National Heritage Museum through April 26, consists of 75 photographs. They are drawn from 250 photographs of immigrant "types" he took at Ellis Island between 1905 and 1925. Sherman was senior clerk and personal secretary to the Commissioner of Immigration and would occasionally serve on so-called Boards of Special Inquiry. Such boards investigated immigrants whose suitability for entry into the United States had been challenged. Sherman was also a serious amateur photographer, and it was these persons of dubious status whose portraits he took.
Sherman's pictures inevitably recall those Lewis Hine took at Ellis Island, also starting in 1905. (They can be seen in an online gallery at the George Eastman House website, www.geh.org.) The comparison is doubly unfair. Hine was, of course, a magnificent artist, as Sherman was not. Furthermore, insofar as possible Sherman consciously sought to portray his subjects as types rather than individuals. Measuring, recording, documenting: These are Sherman's self-appointed tasks, and he had his sitters wear the costumes of their native lands to designate where they came from.
The comparison with Hine is also misleading. Understood in terms of genre rather than content, what Sherman's images most resemble are fashion photographs and society portraits. Costume and pose count for far more than personality. So not only do we see Finns, Cossacks, Italians, Greeks, Turks, Syrians, Albanians, Burmese, Swedes, Sikhs, Algerians, Slovaks, Chinese, and so on - a veritable League of Nations avant la lettre. We see them as if wearing sartorial passports - their points of origin are that emphatically displayed.
Types are abstractions, of course (so are supermodels, for that matter, albeit with better cheekbones). People are individuals. No matter how typical Sherman strove to make his sitters appear, they remain human beings. Again and again, it's the eyes one notices. Is it her past or future that the anonymous Ruthenian woman Sherman photographed stares at?
These immigrants who came from the world over have two things in common: America as destination and being detainees. On average, 2 percent of them would be deported. These are stateless people: shown in such a way as to emphasize their origins elsewhere, and as yet denied access to a new homeland. They are people on the verge. It's surely not too much to read in their faces an eagerness to curry favor, not to mention a barely concealed anxiety.
A viewer can't help but fasten on the outlandish garb so many of Sherman's sitters wear (outlandish to us, of course, not to them): turbans, astrakhans, dirndls, scarves, fezzes, kilts, lederhosen, wimples. Always, though, there's an awareness of how threatened and desperate each of them was. What they're wearing isn't so much native costume as a possible convict's uniform.
Usually Sherman photographed the immigrants singly, less often in pairs or family groups. Occasionally, we see them wearing numbers. In context, the numerals surely looked unremarkable - again, the mania for classification. Seen here, the effect is sinister. The immigrants are, as Peter Mesenholler puts it in the book that accompanies the exhibition, "specimens arrayed for scrutiny."
Some photographs have words on them, presumably from Sherman, either typewritten or in cursive. Sometimes these captions are amusing. Peter Meyer is a "Wealthy Dane in search of pleasure" (he does have a rather dissipated look). Others are heartbreaking: "8 Orphan children - Mothers killed in Russian Massacre - Oct. 1906 SS 'Coronia' May 8 - '08."
The most intriguing caption describes an immigrant who came the least distance geographically, if not otherwise: "Mary Johnson, 50, Canada - came as 'Frank Woodhull.' SS 'New York' - Oct 4 - '08. Dressed 15 yrs in men's clothes. Lived 30 yrs. in U.S."
Sherman even photographed a celebrity, the anarchist Emma Goldman. Awaiting deportation to the Soviet Union in 1919, she gives Sherman's camera a blank, impenetrable look. Goldman, at least, was in no doubt as to her approved destination.
Mark Feeney can be reached at email@example.com.