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If Peter Mesenhöller expected to find the misery of the tired, the poor, the wretched emanating from a few photographs displayed in the Ellis Island Immigration Museum the day he first visited in 1996, he was in for a surprise. “I immediately got stunned by the dignity, the pride, the self-confidence,” Mr. Mesenhöller, a cultural anthropologist specializing in early still photography and immigration studies, said by phone from his home in Cologne, Germany. “It was totally different from the usual image we have of the huddled masses.”
Mr. Mesenhöller had alighted on the photography of Augustus Frederick Sherman, a registry clerk in Ellis Island’s immigration division in the early 20th century. In the hours when he wasn’t determining the fate of some of the thousands of immigrants disembarking daily in New York Harbor from foreign vessels, he was coaxing the hopeful to open their trunks, don their finest attire and level their gaze at his camera.
Some 75 photographs of these immigrants are on view at the Ellis Island museum in “Augustus Frederick Sherman: Ellis Island Portraits 1905-1920.”