Each week, we bring you the backstory of work featured in our collection, written by a member of our curatorial team.

"Romanian Shepherd"

by Poppy Simpson, Head of Curation

In his recent, quietly persuasive collection of essays, ‘How to See’, the artist David Salle argues, with immense charm, for a different way of looking at art—one that sidesteps dry categorisation, dispenses with questions of the artist’s ‘intention’ and embraces the exploration of an artwork’s fundamental elements. Ideas, on their own, are boring, he says, unless they “intersect with an artist’s inclination for form, causing it to deepen and expand, like a paper flower that blooms when you put it in water. The right idea, one that is in productive sync with one’s talents, can unlock a whole worldview. If that idea is also part of a sensibility that is forming and spreading in the larger culture, or zeitgeist, a multiplier effect comes into play, and the art will resonate strongly with the viewing public. We will feel it expresses us”.

I couldn’t agree more. And it’s for this very reason that I’m typically left cold by the majority of art that emerges out of election season. That special sauce—the alchemic mixture of ability and political insight, seasoned with historical understanding and clarified by an emerging cultural consensus….well, it’s rare, isn’t it? And even if it’s being made (and somewhere, people must be making it), where to find it? Inevitably, the work that we end up talking about the most during these exhausting campaigns is the controversial and contrarian, the purposefully provocative—Trump’s naked statue ‘The Emperor Has No Balls’ being the most obvious example. It’s the art that wears its BIG IDEA on its sleeve, that shouts loud enough to be heard above the visual din of social media feeds. I’d hazard a guess that it’s also the art that will have the shortest shelf-life. What’s left to respond to come November 9th?  

I’m being unfair. Art isn’t always designed to last—the ice-monument ‘American Dream’ that melted alongside both the Republican and Democratic conventions certainly wasn’t—and there’s a significant and valuable tradition of ‘activist art’. But what I’ve craved in 2016 is work that is generous in its ability to challenge and expand my way of thinking through visual engagement. On my Meural Canvas at home, it’s been generations of painters and photographers past that have satisfied this impulse.

That being said, a set of photographs recently arrived in my inbox—photographs that, when taken, were not conceived of as art at all—that have perhaps most affected me in the run up to today’s vote. It’s a week early for the Retronaut’s capsule, but I couldn’t think of a collection more suited to today.

"Albanian Soldier"

"Alsace-Lorraine Girl"

"Ruthenian Woman"

c. 1906-1911: Ellis Island immigrants, in color

These photographs show a tiny handful of the more than 12 million immigrants who entered the United States through the immigration station at New York's Ellis Island between 1892 and 1954. The men and women portrayed are wearing their finest clothes, often their national dress, brought with them from their homeland to America. Around 5,000 immigrants entered the country every day at the height of Ellis Island's activity.

The photographs were taken by Augustus Francis Sherman, the chief registry clerk at Ellis Island and an avid amateur photographer. They were captioned only with the subject's country of origin.

It is estimated that today more than a third of all Americans have an ancestor who came through Ellis Island. These images have been colorized by Jordan Lloyd of Dynamichrome using extensive historical research to accurately and authentically reproduce the colors of each immigrant's distinctive and proud national fashions.