Known for his uplifting, large-scale photographic portraits of ordinary people, French artist JR recently travelled to New York’s Ellis Island for a site-specific project on the famed historical site. The island once housed the largest immigrant processing center in the nation, filtering millions of newcomers to the States from the 1890s through the 1950s. Ellis Island now houses an immigration museum, though parts of it have been left untouched. JR was invited to reinvigorate the destitute, abandoned buildings on the island’s south side with his project “Unframed — Ellis Island,” opening to the public on October 1.
For “Unframed,” JR acted as a curator and installation artist more so than a photographer. He selected vintage photographs of immigrants passing through the island to create large-scale paste-ups that evoke his street art work on the walls of the former Ellis Island Immigrant Hospital. The images depict families waiting for their fates to be decided at the hands of bureaucrats, weary from lengthy transatlantic voyages. Blown up and pasted in bleak, crumbling settings, the photographs occupy the rooms of the former immigration center like specters from the country’s past. There is a nostalgic bittersweetness to the work as one begins to wonder whether these anonymous immigrants went on the achieve the fabled American Dream.