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Must-see photo slideshow gives haunting glimpse of a darker side of Ellis Island

Photo by Vilseskogen/Flickr (Creative Commons)

An interior shot, by a different photographer, of an abandoned medical building on Ellis Island, June 2008

There is the most gorgeous photo slide show on the NPR website today of the abandoned hospital buildings of Ellis Island, the work of photographer Stephen Wilkes. From NPR:
Wilkes' photo project, Ellis Island: Ghosts Of Freedom, shows the somber side of immigration — the side you don't see while on island tours. For many, the dream of a better life terminated in Ellis Island hospitals, where they were detained at any sign of disease. In one of Wilkes' images, the Statue of Liberty is reflected in a mirror. "I suddenly imagined a petite Eastern European woman rising out of her bed every morning," he writes in the caption."Seeing the reflection would be the closest she'd ever come to freedom."

The hospitals were closed in 1954 and basically left untouched, except by the elements of nature, and unseen, until Wilkes came along. Empty rooms, peeling paint, a lonely shoe left on a table — this deterioration is what Wilkes finds beautiful. His meditative studies of light and composition guide the viewer through Ellis Island's dark side, oddly illuminated by an afternoon glow.

Wilkes' images are truly haunting: the wan light, the crumbling plaster and the peeling paint are a testament to the beauty of ruins. And it's true, there was a dark side to Ellis Island, one that has been lost beneath generations of rosy memories and myth.

While only a relatively small number of people who arrived there were sent back, many of those who were not allowed in were held awaiting deportation in crude detention facilities referred to as the "pen." The New York Times maintains an excellent archive of stories dating to 1851 - replete with politically incorrect headlines - in which this reality of Ellis Island is well chronicled. There were escapes, riots, even murders, as people who had endured long voyages by sea grew desperate.

The station was also used to detain suspected enemy aliens during wartime, including people of German, Italian and Japanese ancestry during World War II.

The headline of one lengthy New York Times feature from 1910, regarding some of the situations that prompted the detention of immigrants on Ellis Island, foreshadows more recent stories of immigrant detention and deportation: "Tragedies of Our Inexorable Immigration Laws: How They Sunder Families and Wreck Hard-Saved Fortunes - a False Cablegram from Anybody Will Detain a Traveler."

Wilkes' featured photographs hint at the heartbreak endured within those walls.