The New Americans – Ellis Island Exhibition – 2009
Whenever I view the vintage photographs of new immigrants to America in the 1800s and early 1900s, I am always drawn to how the individuals in the images must have felt. Why did they uproot themselves and undertake an arduous, often dangerous or even deadly journey across a vast ocean, to the unknown? What profound conditions drove them to leave their rooted, ancestral homes? What did their families say? Was there crying, pleading, threatening, severing of all ties? Did they leave in the dead of night? Who was left behind? Would there be anyone waiting for them in the New World? A cousin, a friend? Maybe no one. No prospects were guaranteed. There was only desperate hope for a new start – a new life.
It would be a strange and harsh world, with a new language, no one to depend on, no roots. Everything they knew would be far away, in a place they would probably never see again. These had to be courageous people, to arrive in a cold city undoubtedly nothing like they had imagined. The hosts of the nation were far from hospitable: Most were indifferent at best and hostile, rejecting, cruel at worst. Whatever the dreams of those exhausted, anxious, world-weary travelers who survived the trip, the reality upon arrival was dreary, even tragic. Right on the docks were recruitment officers to enlist men into the Civil War, or work gangs, or sweatshops. With luck, some new immigrants might become a city worker, or get to live in the maid’s quarters of a hotel or a rich man’s house. But most would find themselves squeezed into squalid, disease-infested, “Old Law” tenements on Delancey, Hester, Essex or some other teeming street on the Lower East Side.
Each of these old photos, in the antebellum wet-plate collodion process, speaks a narrative of epic proportion.
In actuality, the wet-plate collodion process is merely tangential to the dramatic, adventurous and even romanticized stories that each portrait conveys. The nostalgic, Proustian pull of that old-time look is just a result of the photography format most frequently employed in those days. Back then, the wet-collodion process had become familiar enough that viewers of the age took it for granted, and were seldom curious about the conditions of those pictured. An uncountable number of wet-collodion images were lost in a sea of other images, shot with the same process, and ignored by the general public of that era. No one of any real import took time or interest without being pulled in by an exotic photographic process, because the process was common place back then, which minimized the import of the content.
Now the reigning format, of course, is digital. Hundreds of thousands of immigrants are digitally recorded and as equally overlooked as their ancestors were. And just as those immigrants of yesteryear were ignored or treated with disdain and suspicion, so, too, are the new Americans, who must also cope with fears of terrorism far worse than the public notions of mere “anarchists” back then. We make the same mistakes based on ignorance, and fail to perceive the potential of adventurous risk-takers who are more likely than most to transcend the odds and achieve something great. With these strange newcomers arrive new delicacies, art, fashion, architecture and thought. Every culture evolves because new ideas come in from cultures far away.
The new Americans of today have an easier physical journey by air than their predecessors did in steerage, but their risks are just as great, their fears just as valid. And with the current digital mode of photographic record, their faces are just as lost amid a sea of billions of pixels, their lives taken for granted.
So Enfield depends upon today’s public perception of the wet plated collodion process as exotic and worthy of a second look, a connection to old world imagery and romance, to give these brave individuals a leg up in the new world. Maybe the newspapers articles citing illegal immigrants who are stealing fewer available slots of employment, stealing tax dollars, will bear less of a toll on the newcomers if they can be seen with the romance of the wet plate collodion process. Each image taken with the portable darkroom, similar to what Matthew Brady used on the battlegrounds of the civil war, will summon the against all odds conditions facing this recent arrival. Maybe their profound contribution to the enrichment of the nation will be acknowledged in some small fashion. In each of Enfield’s wet plate collodion image, The New Americans are the heroes of the day, each with their own inspirational story.