Art Nerd New York | Los Angeles

Lewis Hine – Docu(la)menting America by Lizzie Fisson

The scene opens with a double decker tour bus driving through the lamp lit streets of lower Manhattan, the tour guide’s voice fading as it passes; “This is New York’s famous Little Italy. It once covered over 40 square blocks but has now been reduced to just one row of shops and cafes.” The line, from The Sopranos sixth season finale, Made in America, plays in my head like a voiceover as I look at Lewis W. Hine’s photographs of Italian immigrants arriving at Ellis Island.

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Group of Italians in the Railroad Waiting Room, Ellis Island, 1905, depicts a group of about 10 men, varying in age, hunched together, seated on a bench with their backs pressed to a chain link fence, luggage piled at their feet. Most of them smile, some with slight bewilderment, some with excitement. As Hine tells us in his caption, these are the men who will become the tailors, barbers, waiters, chauffeurs and mayors of America, and the streets of Little Italy would soon become their home.

I’m a sucker for the nostalgia of photography, thriving off the imaginary memories that are implanted in your consciousness as you witness the pictorial lives of others. So Hine’s photographs of the wide-eyed exhaustion of European immigrants awaiting their chance at the American dream immediately strikes a chord.

It is Hine’s documentation of this group of Italians, hoping to ‘become’ American, with an eye to begin again, that makes David Chase and the New Jersey Mafiosi’s lament at the loss of a once large Little Italy and its displacement by other growing ethnic groups so poignant. The characters in the Sopranos’s connection to their immigrant past has broken down. Whilst they have been absorbed into American culture, they have lost the aspirational hope that is so resonant within Hine’s photograph. The loss of their immigrant status confirms their transformation into just another American. The immigrant story comes full circle; the reign of Tony Soprano reaches its end.

-Lizzie Fisson for Art Nerd New York

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