Ellis Island: Ghosts of Freedom
It has become popular to visit long abandoned buildings for the thrill and beauty of the experience as well as the chance to see a part of history frozen in time, yet slowly decaying. Steven Wilkes has shot a series of most haunting images of Ellis Island. The bulk of the pictures are of the inside of the buildings, which were abandoned in the middle of the twentieth century. For six decades Ellis Island was the main port of entry for immigrants to the United States. The photographed rooms and hallways saw 12 million people enter the country from 1892 to 1954. As a result, there are millions of American families living today who can trace their roots back to a relative who came through this weigh station. The buildings were also witness to thousands of people who were detained and even deported (not allowed entry) because they were "determined" to have physical, mental, “moral”, or contagious illnesses. (Not our finest hour.) Among the photographs are the treatment rooms, the quarantine ward, and the psych ward, all with an eerie haunted cast one would expect of a horror flick.
The buildings have been abandoned since the INS stopped using the island, but despite the decrepitude brought on by the march of time and the encroachment of nature, Wilkes is able to capture the beauty of the site. Poring over the large format pages of this book is like standing in the rooms with the peeling paint and water damaged floor boards. The artist captures colors and light in ways that add an air of mystery and anticipation to the images and left me with the voices of tired and excited immigrants from ages ago echoing through my imagination. There was only one photographic pair with an old black and white from back in the day and one of Wilkes’ images of the same room and angle. It would have been nice to have a few more then and now pairs because of the perspective and real sense of time they lend to the images of decaying rooms. Overall, this is a lovely, moving, sometimes spine tingling photographic essay on one of the most historic and impactful abandoned sites in the United States.