The crowded decks of steam ships coming into Ellis Island. A young family, staring out the window of their cabin, looking toward the future. Stacks of people waiting their turn, hoping for a better life in a new place.
Immigration is a central part of the American experience. As it’s come under attack in the last few years, it’s worth looking back at the way it has shaped the U.S.–and a new exhibition at the Howard Greenberg Gallery in New York City does just that. The show depicts immigration through more than 70 images from 40 photographers who’ve captured this experience from the 1860s through 2015.
With photos by Dorothea Lange, Ansel Adams, and Robert Frank, many of the exhibition’s photos are in black and white–a vintage look at immigration from centuries ago that today remains somewhat romanticized. But the exhibition doesn’t just focus on historical immigration. There is also a tragic image of migrants in Lesbos, Greece, from 2015; a striking shot of a laborer in West Texas cleaning an empty pool; and an image of three young Jewish Iraqi women arriving in Tel Aviv in 1951.
One 1942 image by Dorothea Lange depicts a soldier and his mother–both of Japanese descent–standing in a California strawberry field. The image’s title notes that the soldier had been furloughed to help his family prepare to evacuate to a concentration camp–another period of U.S. history where immigrants, this time of Japanese descent, were vilified and rounded up in a horrific display of racism. This is one of two rarely seen photos by Lange in the exhibition that were suppressed by the U.S. government during World War II.
It feels like we live in a similar time now when Muslim immigrants, in particular, are under attack and President Trump has talked of a “Muslim registry.” These images serve as a reminder that immigrants aren’t anti-American–they’re the central component of the American project.