Friday, August 20, 2010

NPR PICTURE SHOW: EERIE ELLIS ISLAND with photos by Stephen Wilkes

Nation Public Radio

by Claire O'Neill

August 20, 2010
In grade school, I was obsessed with Ellis Island, which I attribute to a fascination with my grandmother's Irish accent. In my mind, it was a bustling, brimming, turn of the century checkpoint for immigrants in search of brighter prospects.

Corridor #9, Island 3: "There was a palatable sense of collaboration with an unknown force when I made this photograph. Red afternoon sunlight created an aura at the end of the corridor unlike any light I have ever seen"--Stephen Wilkes

In Stephen Wilkes' mind, on the other hand, Ellis Island means decay. He discovered the island's abandoned hospitals while on a photo assignment in the 1990s, and it quickly devolved into obsession (of course, I can sympathize). For five years he had free reign of the island's ghostly buildings.

Wilkes' photo project, Ellis Island: Ghosts Of Freedom, shows the somber side of immigration — the side you don't see while on island tours. For many, the dream of a better life terminated in Ellis Island hospitals, where they were detained at any sign of disease. In one of Wilkes' images, the Statue of Liberty is reflected in a mirror. "I suddenly imagined a petite Eastern European woman rising out of her bed every morning," he writes in the caption."Seeing the reflection would be the closest she'd ever come to freedom."

The hospitals were closed in 1954 and basically left untouched, except by the elements of nature, and unseen, until Wilkes came along. Empty rooms, peeling paint, a lonely shoe left on a table — this deterioration is what Wilkes finds beautiful. His meditative studies of light and composition guide the viewer through Ellis Island's dark side, oddly illuminated by an afternoon glow.

His book was featured on Weekend Edition Saturday in 2006; and now, his photographs are part of a new exhibition at the James A. Michener Art Museum outside of Philadelphia. (Related review here) Brian Peterson, the exhibition curator, has made an interesting contrast by pairing Wilkes' color prints with the early documentary photographs of Lewis Hine.

Ellis Island, 1926 
Lewis W. Hine/Courtesy of George Eastman House

I've never actually visited Ellis Island, but after seeing Wilkes photographs, I just might have to revisit and old obsession.
Original post here with slide show of photographs.
©National Public Radio

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