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The Steerage

Alfred Stieglitz (American, 1864-1946)

The Steerage, 1907

  • Photogravure
  • 15 7/8 x 11 1/16 in. (40.4 x 28.1 cm)
  • The Jewish Museum, New York
  • Purchase: Mr. and Mrs. George Jaffin Fund, 2000-6
  • © 2008 Georgia O'Keefe Museum / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

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The Steerage

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The Steerage

STIEGLITZ ON THE STEERAGE

Alfred Stieglitz wrote about the experience of taking this photograph:

As I came to the end of the deck I stood alone, looking down. There were men and women and children on the lower deck of the steerage. There was a narrow stairway leading up to the upper deck of the steerage, a small deck right at the bow of the steamer.

To the left was an inclining funnel and from the upper steerage deck there was fastened a gangway bridge which was glistening in its freshly painted state. It was rather long, white, and during the trip remained untouched by anyone.

On the upper deck, looking over the railing, there was a young man with a straw hat. The shape of the hat was round. He was watching the men and women and children on the lower steerage deck. Only men were on the upper deck. The whole scene fascinated me. I longed to escape from my surroundings and join those people.

A round straw hat, the funnel leaning left, the stairway leaning right, the white draw-bridge with its railings made of circular chains—white suspenders crossing on the back of a man in the steerage below, round shapes of iron machinery, a mast cutting into the sky, making a triangular shape. I stood spellbound for a while, looking and looking. Could I photograph what I felt, looking and looking, and still looking? I saw shapes related to each other. I saw a picture of shapes and underlying that the feeling I had about life… (Whelan, Stieglitz on Photography, pp. 194–95)



THE IMMIGRANT JOURNEY

Immigrants coming to this country by ship in the 19th and early 20th centuries could travel in first class, second class, or steerage accommodations. Steerage was by far the cheapest and therefore the only real option for the vast majority of immigrants. But it was the most unpleasant way to travel. Sequestered in the bowels of the ship, steerage passengers endured horribly smelly, dirty, and cramped conditions for the entire journey—sometimes for as few as ten days but sometimes for longer than a month. By the time they reached New York, these immigrants were mentally and physically exhausted.

But their journey was not yet over; they still had to pass medical inspection in order to enter the country. All first- and second-class passengers were quickly examined by medical inspectors aboard ship and allowed to disembark in Manhattan. The steerage passengers went on to Ellis Island. As the immigrants filed through the Registry Room, a doctor would examine the face, hair, neck, and hands of each new arrival. Those suspected of physical or mental defects were marked with white chalk for further inspection. Every immigrant was also checked for trachoma, a serious eye disease. Immigrants who carried infectious diseases or were deemed too ill or feeble-minded to earn a living were not granted entry into the United States. About two percent of the arrivals at Ellis Island were sent back to their countries of origin.