Daily Picture Show

Eerie Ellis Island, Then And Now

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.

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 rein of the island's ghostly buildings.

  • Corridor 9, Island 3. "There was a palpable 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."
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    Corridor 9, Island 3. "There was a palpable 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
  • Hospital Extension, Women's Ward, Island 2. "It felt like a room unearthing itself. The pulverized plaster from the ceiling gave this room, where children with head lice and ringworm once slept, the character of a desert."
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    Hospital Extension, Women's Ward, Island 2. "It felt like a room unearthing itself. The pulverized plaster from the ceiling gave this room, where children with head lice and ringworm once slept, the character of a desert."
    Stephen Wilkes
  • Isolation Ward, Statue of Liberty, Island 3. "Once patients spent their time in the recreation room, reading, sitting and staring out at the Statue of Liberty, the icon of freedom a stone's throw from this hospital where their dreams were put on hold."
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    Isolation Ward, Statue of Liberty, Island 3. "Once patients spent their time in the recreation room, reading, sitting and staring out at the Statue of Liberty, the icon of freedom a stone's throw from this hospital where their dreams were put on hold."
    Stephen Wilkes
  • Psychiatric Hospital, Wall Study With Light Switch, Island 2. "The extraordinary peelings of the periwinkle blue become a topographic map, a kind of ancient chart of the sea in which the explorers who studied it all found themselves at Ellis Island."
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    Psychiatric Hospital, Wall Study With Light Switch, Island 2. "The extraordinary peelings of the periwinkle blue become a topographic map, a kind of ancient chart of the sea in which the explorers who studied it all found themselves at Ellis Island."
    Stephen Wilkes
  • Isolation Ward, Curved Corridor, Island 3. "When I photographed it on an autumn day, light dappled through the windows and gave the impression I was viewing something underwater."
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    Isolation Ward, Curved Corridor, Island 3. "When I photographed it on an autumn day, light dappled through the windows and gave the impression I was viewing something underwater."
    Stephen Wilkes
  • Tuberculosis Ward, Statue of Liberty, Island 3. "I truly feel that it wasn't I who took a lot of these pictures. They were given to me. ... I saw the Statue of Liberty reflected in the mirror. I suddenly imagined a petite Eastern European woman rising out of her bed every morning."
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    Tuberculosis Ward, Statue of Liberty, Island 3. "I truly feel that it wasn't I who took a lot of these pictures. They were given to me. ... I saw the Statue of Liberty reflected in the mirror. I suddenly imagined a petite Eastern European woman rising out of her bed every morning."
    Stephen Wilkes
  • Isolation Ward, Recreation Room, Window Study, Island 3. "The last 30 seconds of sunlight transform the structure. Walls are painted a potent orange. ... Outside and inside connect in some strange way."
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    Isolation Ward, Recreation Room, Window Study, Island 3. "The last 30 seconds of sunlight transform the structure. Walls are painted a potent orange. ... Outside and inside connect in some strange way."
    Stephen Wilkes
  • Nurse's Quarters, Island 3. "I remember climbing a dark staircase to discover the floor where the nurses slept. Screen doors were open at various angles, creating an almost mystical pattern in the space."
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    Nurse's Quarters, Island 3. "I remember climbing a dark staircase to discover the floor where the nurses slept. Screen doors were open at various angles, creating an almost mystical pattern in the space."
    Stephen Wilkes

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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 Philadelphia. Brian Peterson, the exhibition curator, has provided an interesting contrast by pairing Wilkes' color prints with the early documentary photographs of Lewis Hine.

Ellis Island, 1926 i i

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

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

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 an old obsession.

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