Dissertation/Thesis Abstract

Lewis Hine at Ellis Island: The photography of immigration and race, 1904–1926
by Urena, Leslie Jennifer, Ph.D., Northwestern University, 2009, 322; 3355743
Abstract (Summary)

Lewis Hine’s photographs of immigrants taken at the Ellis Island Immigration Station between 1904 and 1926 depict newcomers undergoing the process of immigration. Photography scholars have studied a limited sample of the works as examples of social documentary photography, and hence as sympathetic portrayals of immigrants. Because of Hine’s pro-immigrant intentions and fame as a social reformer, art historians have ignored the photographs’ racializing potential. The works demand an account, which I provide here, that extracts them from a Hine-focused scholarship and inserts them within the broader histories and theories of photography, race, and immigration.

In this first full-length study of Hine’s Ellis Island project, I consider the photographs’ creation, use, and reuse. I likewise examine how they shaped and were shaped by the Progressive Era’s (1890-1914) unstable racial discourses. Having started as a pedagogical project, the photographs’ ability to teach race remained constant in all of their uses, making it possible for the same works to appear in both pro- and anti-immigrant publications. To explain how the photographs sustained and countered turn-of-the-century conceptualizations of the immigrant, I divide the works into three categories (the narrative, the typological, and the art-historically based). I analyze the relationship between the images and accompanying text in contemporaneous sources devoted to immigrant populations. Then I discuss how in the late 1930s the photographic community overlooked the racial aspects of the Ellis Island project. Hine, however, continued emphasizing the race-based nature of his work.

Throughout this study I argue that Hine’s photographs produced simultaneously specific and general renderings of immigrants. On the one hand the photographs highlighted difference. On the other, their often-shifting captions continually reinserted immigrants into general categories based on race, as did the government and the general public. Because Hine’s photographs focused on the immigrant, they necessarily dealt with a racialized subject, regardless of their context. Their initial sympathetic purpose, coupled with their subsequent mixed uses, also show how the photographic medium can be used to differentiate and generalize sitters. Hine’s photographs were not just compassionate renderings of the immigrant. They were also complex objects steeped in the discourses of race, which depended on the medium’s ability to racialize, even well beyond the walls of Ellis Island.

Indexing (document details)
Advisor: Eisenman, Stephen F.
Commitee: Pinney, Christopher, Van Zanten, David
School: Northwestern University
Department: Art History
School Location: United States -- Illinois
Source: DAI-A 70/05, Dissertation Abstracts International
Source Type: DISSERTATION
Subjects: Art history
Keywords: Ellis Island, Hine, Lewis, Immigration, Photography, Race
Publication Number: 3355743
ISBN: 978-1-109-15060-5
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