© Paul Mozell 2008
If you knew nothing about the history of Ellis Island, the photographs by Stephen Wilkes of the abandoned buildings on this lonely outpost in New York Harbor, would stir your emotions. In a show at the Griffin Photography Museum in Winchester, Massachusetts which runs until March 30, 2008, we see the result of a 5 year long project to document the crumbling buildings that were the portal to America for thousands of immigrants.Wilkes takes us on a journey through the Measles Ward, The Tuberculosis Ward, The Nurses Quarters, residences, and offices, where sickly immigrants were held for monitoring and treatment before being released to take the final ferry across the harbor. If medical treatment was unsuccessful, those unfortunate immigrants were returned to the countries from which they fled; their dreams shattered.
In Wilke’s remarkably detailed images, the cracking paint, invading vines, crumbling paster, and rusty pipes, are mysteriously full of life. Although at first glance most of the long passageways, corridors, and treatment rooms are vacant, there is always a single boot, a sink, a chair, or a solitary shipping trunk in each photograph that attracts the viewer’s eye. Wilkes told this writer that he did not move any objects or alter any of the rooms. Yet, these objects are like hands reaching from the early 20th century to our time, inviting the observer to connect with the spirit of those who waited anxiously in these hallways for good news from the medical staff. At the opening reception of the show this week, Wilkes told me that sometimes these objects had vanished when he returned to the setting a few days laterâ€”as if removed by a set designer from the past.
Using an Arca Swiss 4×5″ view camera, Wilkes shot many Polaroid test frames before settling on a final exposure on Fujifilm Velvia transparencies. The gallery prints which range in size from approximately 16×20 up to perhaps 48×60, were made with the Ilfochrome process and show an astounding dynamic range, along with the saturated color that is typical of this printing technology.
He often photographed when the sun was just above the horizon. Warm reddish to amber wavelengths clashed with the green or blue colors of the institutional wall paint. Although some viewers at the reception assumed that he used supplemental spot lights with colored gels and reflectors, Wilkes says he did not employ any of these devices. Clearly, his background as a commercial and editorial photographer enabled his mastery of available light, exposure, and film characteristics. The project has been published as “Ellis Island: Ghosts of Freedom” by W.W. Norton.
The Emerging Artist Gallery at the Griffin features the unique work of two photographers. The Portrait Collages by Paula Gillen are images that have been digitally dissected, then re-assembled like a jigsaw puzzle that doesn’t quite fit together correctly. Polygon and rectangle-shaped slices have been carefully positioned so the end result has an eerie, flowing, three dimensional effect. We see multiple views of the same person, people with legs at unnatural angles, and people with multiple limbs. I was reminded of the work of illustrator M.C. Escher. Step into Gillen’s wonderland of surrealism and bright colors for a while, and you may have questions about the meaning of the “real” world thereafter.
In 2004, Frank Rothe visited a children’s summer camp in Russia to study how the lives of young people have changed since the period of great upheaval in the 1980’s and 90’s. The resulting show, called Running Through the Wind, paints a pleasing, almost bucolic picture of life. The photographer describes his visit there as a “journey back in time”, where the pace is slow and easy. The small, square, color C-type prints have a pleasing antique look, with gentle colors. These journalistic images of day-to-day events at summer camp are especially illuminating when contrasted with the challenging, in-your-face work of the other photographers showing at the Griffin today. Rothe’s work is at once personal and inviting, and recommended by this writer.
The Griffin Museum of Photography, 67 Shore Road, Winchester, MA 01890, 781-729-1158.