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Exhibitions at Cork Public Museum 2007

Cork Public Museum in association with The Aperture Foundation New York present Augustus Frederick Sherman: Ellis Island Portraits 1905-1920


From 1892 to 1954, over 12 million immigrants entered the United States through the portal of Ellis Island, an island in New York Harbour. Ellis Island is located in the upper bay, just off the New Jersey coast in the shadow of the Statue of Liberty. Over the years, the site has been increased from its original 3.3 acres to 27.5 acres mostly from landfill obtained from ship ballast and excess earth from the construction of the New York City subway system.

Ellis Island Portraits

Lord Mayor Cllr. Michael Aherne photographed with Stella Cherry, Curator. 

In 1890, President Benjamin Harrison designated Ellis Island as the first Federal Immigration Station. Prior to this, it was the individual states that controlled immigration not the federal government.

Anne Moore, a 15-year-old Irish girl, along with her two brothers became the first immigrants to pass through Ellis Island on January 1st 1892. During the evening of June 14th 1897, a fire destroyed the entire immigration station, though no one was killed, invaluable records were destroyed. A new “fire proof” station was opened in December 1900.

New York Harbour was the most popular destination for steamship companies. Companies like White Star, Red Star, Cunard and Hamburg-America played a vital part in the history of Ellis Island and immigration into America. However there existed a large discrepancy in how passengers were treated depending on what class ticket they held. First and second-class ticket holders did not have to enter Ellis Island for inspection. They underwent a cursory inspection onboard their ship. It was believed that if they could afford to buy first and second-class tickets then they were less likely to end up in institutions or hospitals and would not be a burden on the state for legal or medical reasons. These passengers only entered Ellis Island if they had legal or medical problems.

While the first and second-class passengers disembarked and entered the United States, third class passengers had to take a ferry or barge to Ellis Island to undergo a medical and legal inspection. All passengers were tagged with their name and the ship they were on. This was very important, as many passengers did not speak English. If they were deported, it was the responsibility of the shipping company to take them home again. They were then examined by Public Health Service physicians to make sure they had no sign of physical or mental disorder. They were then ushered into the Great Hall where they were interrogated, usually with an interpreter. They were asked about 30 questions on a range of issues like their origins and occupations, as well as their personal funds, and family or friends residing in America. If everything was in order, the whole process would not take more than 3 to 5 hours. However if they failed to satisfy the authorities they were detained for further inspection. Detention could last hours, days, weeks or even months. Of the 12 million immigrants who entered Ellis Island, 20 percent were detained. However only about 2 percent of those detained were deported. It was from these detainees that Augustus Sherman took some 250 immigrant type photographs between 1905 and 1925.

After World War II, when the United States became a world superpower, embassies were established in most major cities in the world. Perspective immigrants now applied for visas in American consulates in their countries of origin. This spelt the end of Ellis Island as an immigration station and in 1954, the last detainee, a Norwegian merchant seaman Arne Peterssen was released and Ellis Island closed. In 1984, the island underwent a major restoration and the Ellis Island Immigration Museum was opened to the public in 1990. Over 2 million people visit the museum annually.

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Lady Mayoress, Mary O'Sullivan (Cork person of the Month for January 2007), her niece Briget Carmody (Chairperson of the Cork Traveller Women's Network) and the Lord Mayor photographed at the Exhibition in Cork Public Museum. Briget's triplets are Louise, Megan and Hannah.

Augustus F. Sherman:
Ellis Island Portraits 1905-1920

Augustus Frederick Sherman was born on July 9th, 1865, in Lynn, Susquehanna County, Pennsylvania. He was the son of a commission merchant and member of the Episcopal Church. His family were well off and could offer their sons a decent education. His brother, Henry Handrick, became a lawyer in New York City while Augustus entered public service as a clerk in the Executive Division of the Bureau of Immigration at Ellis Island in 1892. He was subsequently promoted to senior clerk and personal secretary to the Commissioner of Immigration and therefore was occasionally able to join the Boards of Special Inquiry that were held on a daily basis.

One of his earliest photographs shows the original main building on Ellis Island that was burnt down in 1897. This would suggest that his love for photography began in the 1890’s. It is believed that it was his acquaintance with Terence V. Powderly, Commissioner General of Immigration at Ellis Island, who was also an amateur photographer, may have developed his interest in this photography. One of his photographs, Children’s Playground, Ellis Island Roof Garden, was published in National Geographic in 1905. By the mid-1900’s however, he seems to focus entirely on portrait photography. Due to his privileged position within Ellis Island, Sherman was allowed access to the detainees when regular inspectors or interpreters would not have been. Due to the primitive nature of photography at the turn of the 20th century, a considerable amount of time was needed to get a satisfactory image. Constraints in exposure and getting your subject to stay still meant that only certain immigrations were suitable. With an average of 5,000 immigrants a day passing through Ellis Island, Sherman could only carry out his time consuming photographic sessions with long term detainees.

Whenever possible, Sherman preferred to photograph his subjects indoors and in front of a plain backdrop like a sheet or a folding screen from medical inspection rooms. Those subjects who were expected to have a brief detention, he photographed outside the main building, on a balcony, a lawn, or the roof, to take advantage of the natural light. Sherman photographed his subjects en face or in a three-quarter profile. They would look directly at the camera or gaze into the distance. Their shoulders were relaxed with their chins up. They often had facial expressions, sometimes even smiling. His group shots tend, on the other hand, to portrait more poignant facial expressions often reflecting the harrowing situation of the subjects’ fates, past, present and future. It was this respect and understanding that Sherman showed to his subjects that made his work so famous and still captures the viewer.

Augustus F. Sherman died on February 16th, 1925. The body of work he left behind is described by leading photo-historians as one of the most substantial photographic records of that period of mass immigration.

Ellis Island Museum Staff

Museum staff

Museum staff l to r: Douglas Walshe, Deirdre Creber, Stella Cherry, Lord Mayor, Dan Breen and Rita O'Riordan.

Ellis Island 3

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