Stephen Wilkes’ Ellis Island Exhibit at Steuben Glass Gallery

December 4, 2009 | Source: Monroe Gallery of Photography

Stephen Wilkes’ Ellis Island Exhibit at Steuben Glass Gallery

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Steuben Glass has made functional and fine art glass products for over 100 years in New York. Their involvement in the arts has lead them to collaborate with artists such as Isamu Noguchi, Miro, and Georgia O’Keefe. The Madison Avenue flagship store houses an expansive gallery that is now showing the work of Stephen Wilkes.

For five years, Wilkes photographed the hospital complex on Ellis Island where immigrants with questionable health and contagious diseases were kept. Some eventually joined their families across the Hudson River, while others perished before they could reach their new life.

Wilkes’ photographs are of abandoned rooms with peeling paint and empty hallways overtaken by plant growth. Since his time on the island, the hospital buildings have been renovated and the signs of the past have been removed. Visit the exhibit Ellis Island: Ghosts of Freedom to get an eye-opening look into what was once the gateway to America, captured in time.

Stephen Wilkes, Ellis Island: Ghosts of Freedom

The Steuben Gallery

667 Madison Avenue

New York, NY 10065

Showing now until January 4th, 2009

Robert Nachman, Creative Director of Steuben Glass, talks about the impact of Stephen Wilkes’ work, the importance of history, and more.

Hospital extension, women’s ward

How did you first learn about Stephen Wilkes?

I first saw Wilkes’ work at Photo LA several years ago when he just started to do the Ellis Island photos and I’ve always been a personal fan of it.

What is it about Wilkes’ work that you think resonates with viewers?

I think just on a visceral level, it’s the beauty of the colors and forms… so on one hand you have the beauty of the imagery, the colors, the forms, the textures, and the light – it’s so gorgeous. But you also have this wonderful evocative equality of the history [of Ellis Island] which we all sort of know. I have family that went through Ellis Island, so knowing what that place was and seeing what it looks like now, it brings up all this emotion of this important place that’s been lost in time.

Psychiatric Hospital, wall study with light switch

How has the response been to the show?

For the people that aren’t familiar with it, there’s a two part unveiling for them where they first look at the pictures, and then when they realize what it is they are completely taken aback. For those who are familiar with it or have read the sign, they are also taken aback by the experience itself. I think that the size of the images are breathtaking and people have a strong reaction to it.

Also, everyone has their favorites which is true of most exhibits. Even though there’s a range of shots – exterior, interiors, one is just a wall – there are still wonderful details. For example, there’s this one room with a tiny mirror hanging above the sink and the Statue of Liberty is reflected in it (Tuberculosis Ward, Statue Liberty, Island 3). And then when they see it everyone goes “oh my god!” and there’s this wonderful process of discovery.

L to R: Tuberculosis ward, Isolation ward

What is the lasting impression that you think the show leaves?

I think the most memorable image by far is the cover of the book, the light is so beautiful and with the foliage it looks jewel-encrusted. The whole show evokes the imagination of a place lost in time, like Miss Haversham’s house crawling in vines in Great Expectations or when the kids return to Narnia and find everything in ruins, but the amazing part is that Ellis Island is actually real. It’s just a wonderful emotive experience that you go through when you explore the show. If you have been out to Ellis Island since the renovation, to see these images of complete dilapidation and then to learn how it has been brought back to life again, there is so much that future generations can learn.

Definitely. Ellis Island remains a living monument in American history. Stephen Wilkes’ photographs takes viewers on a journey through a past that will never be seen again. Thank you for your time Robert.
-Helen Shih

Ellis Island: Ghosts of Freedom is now on view at Steuben Gallery on 667 Madison Avenue, New York, NY until January 4th. View more work by Stephen Wilkes.

A vine covered corridor, the cover of the book (Corridor #9)

Nurse’s quarters

The Autoclave

Window Study, Isolation ward

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