PHOTOGRAPHER’S JOURNAL: What does one make of photographic exposures made over eleven hours in a single visit to the abandoned Ellis Island Hospital? It is not just another ruin, though until I began researching I hadn’t really understood how the hospital's story was distinct from that of the island’s northern half with its “Great Hall," celebrated now as our gateway.
The Ellis Island Hospital, opened in 1902, was the nation’s first public health hospital and one of the largest such efforts in the nation’s history. Hospital workers had to learn to respond to conditions never before seen. Doctor’s, nurses, orderlies, administrators and officials had to learn to work with immigrants deemed too sick to immediately enter the United States, who often had little or no English and had never seen a doctor or stripped off their clothes in public. All were in a strange new place far from networks of community. Many of them were our parents and grandparents. All faced a watershed moment in their lives. In order to stay, the sick had to get well, the pregnant had to give birth to a healthy baby.
Once fully operational, the hospital took in 10,000 patients a year. Medicine learned here was sometimes cutting edge, and the morgue was a lecture space for visiting doctors. The hospital closed in 1930 and the buildings were turned to other uses until 1954 when the islands were officially abandoned and ignored. In 1996 the hospital buildings were listed among the 100 most endangered historic places in the United States. I had recently come to appreciate this history when I arrived on Ellis Island at 6:45 AM to undergo security screening and begin the eleven-hour photo shoot at 7:00.
Ellis Island Hospital is not just another ruin. However, time has sand-blasted away almost all visible clues to its previous purpose, identity or occupants. A ward of beds is merely a large room, and the recent preservation efforts have left most windows covered with metal panels in a design that offers the minimum of light and air circulation, and which hides the bruised and broken windows. A giant kitchen, an industrial laundry, the morgue, a few residences offer only flickering shadows of the world once busy here and say nothing of the complex stories occurring daily in these spaces.
The power of the Ellis Island experience lay in the slow exploration of the large, complex site made mostly of endlessly wandering hallways and empty spaces. My sense of where I was in the large complex was often vague. This series of photos through some of those places is intended, not as a tour, but as an impression.
[Click the image above or below and scroll right as in a slide show]