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Addison Updates Archive

In the Air: Immigration

This year, the Addison Gallery of American Art inaugurates the In the Air series of small exhibitions— consisting of just one powerful object, or perhaps several—intended to prompt discussions about events and ideas of the moment.

In 1907, Alfred Stieglitz, an advocate for photography and avant-garde art, stood on one of the first-class decks of his Europe-bound steamship and snapped an image of the steerage, cramped, communal quarters occupied by those who could only afford the cheapest tickets. While historians of photography celebrate The Steerage as an icon of modernism with its emphasis on compositional concerns—the contrasts of light and shadow, the arrangement of forms—others view the image as a remarkable social document, reflecting the contentious discourse at the turn of the last century about immigration to the United States. Some scholars have suggested that the occupants of the lowest decks had been turned away from American shores and sent back to Europe, while others have argued that these passengers were on their way home with their hard-earned wages after working in the United States for a year or two.

Just as questions about entry to the United States and access to its American Dream have long been debated in newspaper columns, in congressional chambers, and around the dinner table, artists have addressed the question in political cartoons and documentary photography. The images presented here prompt consideration of how immigrants have shaped American culture and how their circumstances are depicted.

Top: Alfred Stieglitz, The Steerage, 1907, photogravure on Japanese vellum, gift of Georgia O'Keeffe and Elizabeth Davidson, 1953.24.1; bottom: Lewis Wickes Hine, Women at Ellis Island, c.1910, gelatin silver print, museum purchase, 2012.14