Immigrant Portraiture and the Art of the Alien

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‘German stowaway’, 1911. ©Augustus Sherman | New York Public Library

Just over ten years ago, in 2005, a new book collecting the work of Augustus F. Sherman was published to much media interest and online fanfare. Sherman was an amateur photographer working as Chief Registry Clerk at New York’s Ellis Island station from 1892 until 1925, and he photographed some of the twelve million immigrants to pass into the USA before the station closed in 1954. Many are photographed in their native dress, which Sherman appears to have encouraged, but which also seems logical given the nature of the passage these people had just completed. If you couldn’t carry it with you, you had to leave it behind. Though Sherman’s photographs are clearly staged rather than candid, unlike some of Lewis W. Hine’s work, there is a certain sense directness or frankness to the images that lends them an air of historical authenticity. These portraits are only accompanied by a date, and the subject’s country of origin.

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In addition to giving Americans a vivid look at the individuals who helped make up the ‘great melting pot’, Ellis Island station served as a grimly reflective record of shifting national attitutes towards immigarnts, as reflected in The Public Domain Review’s summary of the station’s usage:

1907 was the busiest year for Ellis Island, with an all-time high of 11,747 immigrants arriving in April. Approved immigrants spent between three to five hours on the island where they underwent medical examinations and were asked questions regarding their occupation and the money they owned, it being preferable for them to have a starting sum when they arrived in the country. Two percent of the immigrants were denied admission on the grounds of suffering from contagious diseases or insanity, or alternatively by virtue of having a criminal background. In the 1920s, restrictions were placed on the percentage of immigrants arriving from various countries or ethnic backgrounds, as immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe were seen as inferior to the earlier immigrants from Northern and Western Europe. The facilities later served as a detention and deportation processing station, and during the Second World War, German, Italian, and Japanese resident aliens were detained on the island.

Likewise, the portraiture of thenative’ and the foreign national (or criminal) has a complex and often rocky history.

Fittingly, around the same time that this book of Augustus F. Sherman’s Ellis Island portraits was released, Travis Louie started selling his paintings of neo-historical monsters – portraits in a faux-Victorian photographic style, about which I am currently writing. Nastia Voynovskaya describes Louie’s work as follows over at Hi-Fructose:

Through a unique process of applying thin, translucent layers of monochromatic, acrylic paint to a panel over and over, Travis Louie […] mimics the effect of 19th-century photography. Though filled with fantastical characters, his works have an effect of verisimilitude much like historical documents from the Victorian and Edwardian periods.

Though Louie’s monster portraiture draws on the North-American nineteenth century rather than the British one, visually his paintings are ambiguous enough to allow for a neo-Victorian reading. A sense of historical time is much easier to pin down in his artwork than a geographical space, partly due to the subject matter of his work. Louie has explicitly tied his decision to reproduce the Victorian photographic motif to the ‘the immigrant experience in North America from the late 18th century through the early 20th century’, which he sees as ‘a convincing record of such things’.

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It seems quite possible that Louie is referring to Sherman’s photographs when he speaks of a convincing record of the North American immigrant experience. Specifically, Louie’s artwork targets the way these images invite a kind of casual racism, or a generalisation of peoples into stereotypes of national custom and costume. As he explains in an interview with Julie Winters of BienArt Gallery:

I created these characters as a sort of veiled commentary on racism and the immigrant experience. In many of my stories, my characters came to North America like any other immigrants, only I chose otherworldly types of beings to make the stories more universal.

Louie’s artwork frequently draws on a 1950s aesthetic as well as a Victorian one, specifically interested in the future-focused imagery of the Atomic Age. When combined, these two aesthetics work together to create a strange timelessness, and a general air of hopeful nostalgia. In the same interview, Louie writes: ‘I almost get that sense that people were more hopeful about the future in North America than they are now and that played into a sense of wonder that is very important to me’.

Given North America’s current culture of intolerance towards immigrants, it may be a long time before this sense of wonder returns to the American psyche. Until then, however, we have artists like Travis Louie to help keep that spirit alive.

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You can find more of Augustus F. Sherman’s photographs via the New York Public Library. A sampling of Travis Louie’s portrait work can be found on his website.