Lewis W. Hine's Social Photography - Immigrants at Ellis Island 1904-1909

Term Paper, 2003

15 Pages, Grade: 1



1. Introduction

2. Lewis W. Hine’s Social Photography

3. Hine’s first photographic project at Ellis Island (1904 to 1909)
3.1 Picture 1: Looking for lost baggage, Ellis Island, 1905
3.2 Picture 2: Young Russian Jewess at Ellis Island, 1905
3.3 Picture 3: Jews at Ellis Island, 1904

4. Conclusion

5. Bibliography

6. Pictures

Give me your tired, your poor,

Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,

The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.

Send these, the homeless, the tempest-tost to me,

I lift my lamp beside the golden door![1]

1. Introduction

In the first decade of the 20th century, when Lewis W. Hine took his first photo series at Ellis Island, 7 million immigrants came to the United States of America. This was roughly the number of people who inhibited the five boroughs of New York City at that time. In 1907 immigration’s peak was reached, when almost 3.000 immigrants, most of whom came from Southern and Eastern Europe, entered the New World on a daily basis.[2] After Ellis Island had re-opened its gates for the immigration procedure in 1900, more than 75 percent of all immigrants who came to the United States entered the country through the port of New York City.[3] The procedure of immigration was divided into a medical and a legal examination. This process was standardized and usually took three to five hours. For those who had to stay longer, because of complications or overcrowded offices, a free meal was offered.[4]

In regard of these immigration numbers, one needs to ask how the inhabitants of New York City and American citizens in general reacted towards this mass immigration. In comparison to former immigrants, who mostly came from Northern and Western Europe, these “new” immigrants were not welcomed at all. Severe prejudices had already developed towards persons from countries which many native-born Americans seemed to consider as “undesirable” ones at that time.[5] Mainly people’s fear resulted from ignorance, because to them these immigrants seemed to be an indistinguishable mass which overcrowded America. Many people feared that these immigrants would take away their jobs and living-space. There seemed to be little sympathy for those needy homeless, whose foreign appearance and different customs irritated the citizens of New York and elsewhere in the country.

Even former immigrants did not show much affection towards those “greenhorns”, and more than often family fathers who picked up their wives and children at Ellis Island could not help to feel ashamed of these unfashionable and strange outfits and hairstyles their beloved wore. These irritations are beautifully documented in immigration novels such as Henry Roth’s “Call it Sleep”[6] or stories such as “Yekl and the Imported Bridegroom”[7] from Abraham Cahan.

When Lewis W. Hine went to Ellis Island to portrait those “huddled masses”, he must have had all those fears and prejudices against these newly arrivers in mind. Undoubtedly, there was a “great public interest in the issue of immigration” when he started his project in 1904 and Hine “was by no means the first, or only, photographer to work at Ellis Island.”[8] Nevertheless, his approach seems to differ from the ones of other photographer of his time. Why did Lewis W. Hine chose immigrants at Ellis Island to be his first photographic subject matter? How did he develop this unique style to express his thoughts and feelings towards these newly arrivers?

Interestingly, something had happened at Ellis Island to make the teacher Lewis Hine want to become a professional photographer. I will try to reveal Hine’s personal opinion towards the social problem of immigration as well as his approach for betterment. Furthermore, I will discuss his photographic aims and goals by examining selected photographs of his first photographic series at Ellis Island.

2. Lewis Hine’s Social Photography

Lewis Wickes Hine was born September 26th, 1874 in Oshkosh, Wisconsin. After having been enrolled at the University of Chicago from 1900 to 1901, he followed Frank A. Manny, a professor of Education and Psychology, to New York City in 1901 to teach at the Ethical Culture School. Under superintendent Manny, Hine was engaged as an assistant teacher of nature studies and geography. At the same time Hine attended the School of Education at the University of New York, until he returned to Chicago for the summer session of 1902.[9]

Lewis Hine started to teach at the Ethical Culture School in times of civil rights movements and social reforms. The Progressive Era of the young century was the background and setting of Hine’s work – both as a teacher and as a photographer. This broad movement for social welfare, which became more and more important during those early years of the 20th century, strongly influenced “Hine’s vision, both for society and for photography.”[10] And as Alan Trachtenberg adds in his essay, Hine owes a great deal of this vision to the hopeful atmosphere of social betterment within which he worked.

For Hine the first significant setting was the Ethical Culture School, which had been founded by Felix Adler in 1876 as a humanist school for industrial education and manual training. With its innovative teaching methods and its progressive values, the school tried to ensure humanist religious education mostly for Jewish children who had emigrated from Europe. The schools aim and “the primary religious ideal [were] to improve the quality of human relations”[11] through social reform.


[1] Emma Lazarus, “The New Colossus”, Jewish American Literature – A Norton Anthology, eds. Jules Chametzky, John Felstiner, Hilene Flanzbaum, and Kathryn Hellerstein (New York, London: W. W. Norton & Company, 2001), p. 106. The sonnet is inscribed on a bronze tablet displayed inside the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty since 1903.

[2] Wilton S. Tifft, Ellis Island, Contemporary Books, Chicago, 1990, p. 83.

[3] Wilton S. Tifft, Ellis Island, 1990, p. 65.

[4] Wilton S. Tifft, Ellis Island, 1990, p. 100.

[5] Thomas M. Pitkin, Keepers of the Gate – A History of Ellis Island, New York University Press, New York, 1975, pp. 43-44.

[6] Henry Roth, Call it Sleep, Noonday Press, New York, 1991.

[7] Abraham Cahan, Yekl and the Imported Bridegroom, Dover Publications, Inc., New York, 1970.

[8] Keith F. Davis, An American Century of Photography – From Dry-Plate to Digital, 2nd edition, Hallmark Cards, Kansas City, Missouri, 1999, p. 528.

[9] Naomi and Walter Rosenblum (eds.), America & Lewis Hine, Aperture Foundation, Inc., New York, 1977, p. 16.

[10] Alan Trachtenberg, Ever the Human Document, in: Naomi and Walter Rosenblum (eds.), America & Lewis Hine , 1977, p. 120.

[11] Alan Trachtenberg, Ever the Human Document, 1977, p. 121.

Excerpt out of 15 pages


Lewis W. Hine's Social Photography - Immigrants at Ellis Island 1904-1909
University of Hamburg  (Amerikanistik)
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Lewis, Hine, Social, Photography, Immigrants, Ellis, Island, Hauptseminar
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Sonja Longolius (Author), 2003, Lewis W. Hine's Social Photography - Immigrants at Ellis Island 1904-1909, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/41719


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