Many photographers were drawn to Ellis Island by the general human interest and newsworthiness of the scene; others, such as pioneering social photographer Lewis Wickes Hine (1874-1940), responded to the individual humanity of the immigrants’ raw eagerness, symbolized for Hine by their humble possessions and their stoicism.
One amateur photographer, Augustus Sherman, the Ellis Island Chief Registry Clerk, had special access to potential subjects for his camera.
It is likely that Sherman’s elaborately costumed subjects were detainees, new immigrants held at Ellis Island for one reason or another. While waiting for what they needed to leave the island (an escort, or money, or travel tickets), some of these immigrants may have been persuaded to pose for Sherman’s camera, donning their best holiday finery or national dress, which they had brought with them from home. Sherman’s pictures were published in National Geographic in 1907 and for decades hung anonymously in the lower Manhattan headquarters of the federal Immigration Service.
The New York Public Library. Manuscripts and Archives Division