These photographs remind us who we are, and where we came from

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Today, I want to talk about two photographic exhibitions with a deeply poetic and philosophical message to all of us whose ancestors either immigrated to the United States, or came here as political refugees. Poverty, misery, and persecution are three reasons that brought millions of people to America in search of freedom and decency.

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Stephen Wilkes, "Measles Ward, Two Chairs," 1998
Digital C-Type print
Courtesy Peter Fetterman Gallery

The largest wave of European immigration happened over a hundred years ago, when most immigrants arrived at Ellis Island. Today, we are invited to visit the Immigration Museum there, and marvel at the Statue of Liberty nearby. But, photographs by American photographer Stephen Wilkes, from his recent exhibition at Peter Fetterman Gallery, tell the complicated and painful story about the one percent of immigrants who were discovered to be seriously ill, and therefore kept for an extended period of time in the island’s hospital. The numbers are devastating… Out of 12 million immigrants, 120,000 people were ultimately denied permission to stay due to their health, and were sent back to Europe.

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(L) Stephen Wilkes, "Curved Corridor," 1998
(R) Stephen Wilkes, "TB Ward," 1998
Both digital C-Type print
Both photos courtesy Peter Fetterman Gallery

In 1998, Stephen Wilkes received an editorial assignment to photograph the long-abandoned hospital complex at Ellis Island, which, for decades, had remained in a state of extreme disrepair. This one-day assignment became a five-year passion project, where he photographed “every corner, every crevice, in every imaginable light.” His large format Cibachrome prints hold your attention with the strange but undeniable beauty of elegant decay. Have you ever looked at your beloved grandmother, and admired every wrinkle in her beautiful face? If you have, you will fall for the photographs in this exhibition, with its subtitle, Ghosts of Freedom.

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Chris Killip, "Torso, Pelaw, Gateshead, Tyneside," negative 1978; print 1988
Gelatin silver print © Chris Killip

The Getty Museum has a new exhibition, Now Then: Chris Killip and the Making of In Flagrante, of works by British photographer Chris Killip, who documented the working class communities in northern England during the devastating deindustrialization of the 1970s and 1980s. “Denied permission to photograph inside factories and shipyards, Killip instead chose to chronicle towns in the throes of decline and working-class communities teetering on the brink” (Getty).

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(T) Chris Killip, "Helen and Her Hula-hoop, Seacoal Camp, Lynemouth, Northumberland," 1984
(B) Chris Killip, "A Car Dumped on the Beach Has to Be Outmanoeuvred by the Seacoalers, Lynemouth, Northumberland," 1982
Both gelatin silver print
Both images courtesy of and © Chris Killip

And, speaking of images worth a thousand words. Here is a photo of a girl playing with a hula-hoop on a seashore strewn with debris. Here is another photo, this time of a man steering his horse and cart into the sea, next to an abandoned car. You look at these images, and become not only an observer, but a co-creator, imagining what happened before, and what will happen after this particular moment was captured.

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(T) Chris Killip, "Rocker" and Rosie Going Home, Seacoal Beach, Lynemouth, Northumberland," 1983,
(B) Chris Killip, "Youth on a Wall, Jarrow, Tyneside," negative 1976; print 1986
Both gelatin silver print
Both images © Chris Killip

Those of us who were lucky enough to visit London as tourists 30-40 years ago never confronted such scenes. Similarly, tourists coming to the United States today to enjoy visits to New York and Los Angeles will never be exposed to the dilapidated communities of Detroit or Cleveland. To quote Timothy Potts, Director of The Getty Museum, Chris Killip was able to “gain access to communities that would otherwise shun outsiders…” He embedded “himself in villages along the coast of England… where locals shared with him the disintegration of their livelihoods and resulting social tensions…”

None of these images are staged - all of them, captured in a moment. None of these people – young kids and adults – are smiling or looking happy. But, all of them have a story to tell; a story about poverty and struggle, a story about dignity and perseverance.



Benjamin Gottlieb