Ellis Island Portfolio

Stephen Wilkes

Limited Edition

April 8, 2016

For five years, Stephen Wilkes explored and photographed the hospital complex that comprises the south side of Ellis Island. Neglected for almost fifty years, the buildings were in a state of extreme disrepair: lead paint peeled from the ceilings and walls of rooms, vines and trees grew through the floorboards of once-cramped wards, detritus and debris littered the hallways. In rooms long abandoned, Wilkes captured an alternate vision of this gateway to freedom.


Twelve million people passed through Ellis Island during its years of operation (1892-1954). Approximately 1.2 million people failed the initial medical assessment and were moved for further inspection to the hospital wards on the south side of the island or, as they are also known, Islands 2 and 3. Most were allowed to immigrate into the United States, but approximately one percent of the individuals detained in the south side were denied entry.  Wilke's powerful images of the underbelly of Ellis Island evoke the literal and metaphoric purgatory between the freedom and captivity experienced by thousands. Suspended between worlds and filled with the hope that they, too, would be allowed to enter the United States, patients were offered a tantalising view of Lower Manhattan from the hospital complex.


Within these rooms, once end-to-end with patient beds, peopled with nurses and doctors, and cramped with medical students, Wilkes discovered an unyielding solitude. Yet, in many of these images lies the undeniable evidence of life - not only in the vegetation that grew undeterred by architecture but also in the radiant, beckoning light in which these scenes were captured.


Since Wilkes' exploration of the south side of Ellis Island, the buildings depicted have been stabilized. These works offer a glimpse of a moment in time: one that asks us to reflect upon America's past and pay tribute to those brave individuals who crossed oceans in search of freedom and opportunity.