Augustus Frederick Sherman worked as a clerk at Ellis Island in the years 1892-1925. He was an untrained, yet highly gifted photographer who created hundreds of images documenting the new arrivals to America. Fascinated by the diverse origins and cultural backgrounds of his subjects, Sherman created a riveting series of portraits, offering viewers a compelling perspective on this dynamic period in American history.
Very little is known about Sherman. Born on July 9, 1865, in Lynn, Pennsylvania, he was a member of the Protestant Episcopal Church. Hired by the Bureau of Immigration to work as a clerk at Ellis Island in 1892, eight years after having moved to New York, he rose through the clerical ranks. "When he died in 1925, he was chief clerk of Ellis Island, in charge of the Immigration Bureau’s extensive correspondence."
Sherman took photographs from about 1904 until 1924. Considering the state of the art of photography in that era, with long exposures and huge box cameras, the fact he was able to capture so many images during his working life is amazing.
Sherman took photographs of families, groups, and individuals who were being detained either for medical reasons or for further interrogation. In some cases, such as his images of a gypsy family, the subjects of photographs were deported. Over the course of his career at Ellis Island, Sherman took more than 200 pictures, often encouraging his subjects to open their suitcases and put on their elaborate national costumes or folk dress. He captured images of Romanian shepherds, German stowaways, circus performers and women from Guadeloupe.
Sherman's photographs were not taken in an official capacity, but they were used by immigration officials to promote the work of Ellis Island. They were published in some of the annual reports of the Commissioner General of Immigration and provided by Ellis Island Commissioner William Williams to the New York Times to promote William's work at Ellis Island. Sherman's photograph collections are housed at the Ellis Island Immigration Museum and the New York Public Library.
On July 4, 2008, the Minnesota History Center opened a new exhibit celebrating the human story of the more than twelve million immigrants who entered the United States through the federal immigration station. The exhibit features 75 framed black-and-white photographs reflecting the cultural and ethnic diversity of people arriving at the beginning of the 20th century.