Shadows Return to Ellis Island

Shadows Return to Ellis Island

JR Brings Ellis Island’s Abandoned Hospital to Life


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Photo Credit Joshua Bright for The New York Times

In the century-old photo, seven children gaze straight at the camera, looking hopeful or somber, or perhaps simply stunned at their surroundings. They have just landed on Ellis Island.

Their heads were wrapped in white cloth; they suffered from favus, a scalp disease. Deemed unfit for entry into the United States, they were sent to the island’s enormous hospital, where they were studied, treated and photographed. Most likely, they were eventually released, healthy, to their new homeland.

Their experience might have been forgotten, the photo buried with countless others in an archive. Instead, this black-and-white portrait has been revived, blown up to life-size and pasted across a broken window in the former Ellis Island Immigrant Hospital in New York harbor. Light streams through the children’s translucent faces, foliage visible beyond the crumbling building, which has been abandoned and off limits since 1954.

The image is part of a new installation, “Unframed — Ellis Island,” by the French artist JR, which brings this landmark building, its patients and staff members, to grainy but wrenching life. It is the first time in 60 years that the Ellis Island hospital has been open to the public. Tickets go on sale Thursday for guided tours that begin on Oct. 1.

JR gave a preview tour last week, wearing his trademark sunglasses and striding the hospital’s long, spooky hallways, past flaking walls and dirt floors. Best known for his large-scale street portraiture projects, he pointed here to his nearly two-dozen, carefully chosen pieces. All were made from archival photos taken in and around the hospital, 100 or so years ago.

“The idea is to respect the architecture,” JR said, moving past a wheat-pasted tableau where a woman’s hat hovers amid tree limbs seen through a broken window. “I let the walls decide what part of the image should appear.”

The installation is site-specific. Doctors float over the broken white tiles of the surgical theater; a young woman seems to rest on the one remaining wiry bed frame; nurses laugh across the lockers in a linen storage room.

For Janis Calella, president of Save Ellis Island, the nonprofit organization that helped sponsor the exhibition, the installation is a form of time travel. “You stand there and you’re in the present, and they’re in the past, and you’re there together,” she said, looking at a photo of a white-coated technician in action, a real window serving as his light source.

The first tour groups will be limited to 10 people as part of a pilot program, with plans to expand next year. But the work will remain up “until it decides to disappear,” Ms. Calella said.

Nature has already transformed some of the images: On the ancient lockers, rust seeps through the white uniforms of the nurses; people in a group of immigrant detainees appear nervous in a decayed room open to the lapping river.

Some images are startling in their verisimilitude. Family members gaze at the Statue of Liberty, just as they did in the original moment. And some are creepy, like the ghostly girl scowling in a pointy hat, her dress flowing off a door into dust and debris.