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Capturing the 'Dark Side' of Ellis Island

Sometimes, a journey of five years begins with a single hour. At least, that's what happened to Stephen Wilkes. One assignment -- to photograph the side of Ellis Island that no one sees -- turned into an obsession, and now a book.

Ellis Island: Ghosts of Freedom documents the weather-beaten remnants of the immigration hub's abandoned hospital buildings, where people who steamed past the Statue of Liberty on crowded ships were sometimes held back if they had an infectious disease or obvious disorder.

The hospital was shut down in 1954 and basically left untouched, except by salty harbour winds and time. When Wilkes began to take photographs there in 1998, trees limbs had started to reach into hallways.

Wilkes felt himself called back to the island, studying its unseen side for five years, through different seasons of the year. Like many people who visit Ellis Island, Wilkes had a personal connection to it: His grandmother escaped Austria in 1939, leaving through Naples, Italy, and arriving in America at nine years old.

The forgotten side of Ellis Island that Wilkes photographed no longer exists. An organization called Save Ellis Island has raised the money to "stabilize" the old hospital, which saves it from further decay, but also cleans up some of the rhapsodical ruin and rust that so touched Stephen Wilkes. Save Ellis Island hopes to open the hospital to tourists in 10 to 15 years.

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