Today’s question: Where are these people going?
Titles vary in exhibitions when this famous 1908 photograph of a stairway at Ellis Island are displayed. The two most common are: “Climbing into America” and “Climbing into the Promised Land.” The photographer, sociologist Lewis Hine, also made the photo we looked at yesterday. Considering how easy it is to snap photos today, you may not appreciate how hard Hine had to work to create this image.
One historian describes Hines’ process this way: “Amidst crowds of anxious immigrants milling about, Hine had to locate his subject and set the pose—almost always, because of the language barriers, without words. He had to set up his 5-by-7-inch view camera on its rickety tripod, focus the camera, pull the slide, dust his flash pan with powder, and through his looks and gestures try to extract the desired pose and expression. With a roar of flames and sparks, the flash pan exploded, an exposure was made, and beneath the protective cloud of smoke which blinded everyone in the room Hine would pack up and leave. A second exposure was out of the question; one shot was all he had.”
So, yes, Hine did “pose” this photograph of a few of the more than a million immigrants who passed through the Ellis Island immigration center near New York City that year. He achieved this “pose,” most likely, by asking the men and women continuously streaming up this stairway to stop and look his way. Just a few of them agreed to look into the camera. One man appears to be lifting his paperwork perhaps to cover his face. The woman in the photo has decided not to look Hines’ way.
Hines took about 200 photographs at Ellis Island between 1904 and 1909. His motive? Humanizing the sea of immigrants; showing the faces and illustrating the optimism of these men and women who, at the time, were dismissed by many Americans as impoverished rabble. Most Americans wanted to avoid these newcomers; Hines saw America’s future at Ellis Island.
Today, looking into Hine’s Ellis Island photos, most Americans wonder: Could he have captured one of my own ancestors? A great grandfather or great grandmother?
Today, these immigrants don’t frighten us—they are us. Today, discussion groups relate this photo to United America Core Value 7: Nearly all Americans believe in the value of “Getting Ahead—Individual achievement, status and success.”
Share these images …
The United America photo gallery Images of America was developed so you can freely share these inspiring images with friends. This method has been used successfully with groups nationwide to spark spirited and constructive discussions about what unites us as Americans. Then, to fully understand the 10 core values, get the book United America. So, come on! Start your own discussion …
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