Stephen Wilkes Lands on Ellis Island at the Peter Fetterman Gallery
The Statue of Liberty is the most recognizable symbol of American freedom. Lady Liberty represents the promise of America, holding a tablet as a call to our shores to anyone looking for a brighter life. But it’s a different island in New York Harbor that has welcomed twelve millions to our country. Twelve million stories and countless dreams have passed through the doors of Ellis Island, but in 1954 the Federal Government shut down the center to process hopeful Americans through different facilities. Although much of the island has undergone renovations to turn it into a museum, a lot of it hasn’t been touched since the 1950s, holding all those stories and ripening in the face of time’s march. Stephen Wilkes was let into the closed off areas of the island that were one used as quarantine but after a first glimpse at what the other side of the island was like, it became an obsession.
“For two weeks after shooting the first group of pictures of Ellis I was obsessed. I couldn’t sleep; I couldn’t erase the buildings from my mind. So I went back, many times, every chance I could. What began as a one-hour editorial assignment became a five-year passion. In a place few were ever allowed to enter, I was blessed to study through every season. I photographed every corner, every crevice, in every imaginable light.”
The result is a look behind a curtain few even know hangs across America’s history. Stephen’s photographs show the rooms where the hopeful sat, not knowing if they would get the future they wished for, the future that sings across Lady Liberty’s tablet, and the future still in debate in our contemporary political climate.
The Peter Fetterman Gallery in Santa Monica, California recognized the prescient nature of this collection of images, bringing the portfolio to their space this spring, so that all of us can remember the adolescence of our country and the pathways built by those ahead of us, and how we leave them for those behind us.
Check out Stephen Wilkes’ Ellis Island: Ghosts of Freedom at The Peter Fetterman Gallery through May 27.
If you cannot make it to Santa Monica this spring, Stephen compiled the collection into a book published by W. W. Norton & Company in 2006 with an introduction by Bill Bradley that you can find at major booksellers.