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Portraying Race beyond Ellis Island: The Case of Lewis Hine

In: International Journal for History, Culture and Modernity
Author:
Leslie Ureña Curator, USA urenalj02@gmail.com

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Lewis Hine first went to New York’s Ellis Island Immigration Station to take photographs that would elicit sympathy from his students at the Ethical Culture School toward the new immigrants. Since then, the photographs, dating from 1905 to 1926, have visually defined his sitters as foreigners in classrooms, in print, and at museums. Produced at a time when the so-called race of the foreign-born was deemed indicative of their overall character and abilities, the photographs both sustained and countered turn-of-the-century racialized conceptualizations of newcomers. More recently, contemporary artists including JR and Tomie Arai have returned to Hine’s Ellis Island work for installations that bring the past into direct dialogue with the present, confronting contemporary viewers with enlarged versions of his photographs. Hine’s pro-immigrant intentions and reputation as a social reform photographer, however, have clouded how these photographs also racialized their sitters. This article traces the circulation of a selection of Hine’s works in different contexts dating from 1905 to today, and considers them within the broader histories and theories of photography, race, and immigration.

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