Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
December 28, 2010
Anna Pegler-Gordon In Sight of America: Photography and the Development of U.S. Immigration Policy American Crossroads, 28.. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2009. 344 pp.; 57 b/w ills. Paper $24.95 (9780520252981)

In Winslow, Arizona, an immigration inspector stopped a consular official and asked him to produce identification. Despite the card provided, the inspector doubted the official’s status and demanded to see a laborer’s certificate, perhaps hoping to verify identification through the photograph that was mandatory on such certificates. Although this scene sounds like it could be taking place today under SB 1070, the exchange occurred in 1903, and the consular official was not of Mexican descent. During the period of Chinese Exclusion in the United States, the government targeted Chinese not only at the borders but within the country’s interior as well. Raids in major cities were common, and someone who was perceived to be of Chinese ancestry could be picked up off the streets and arrested at any time. This vignette appears in Anna Pegler-Gordon’s In Sight of America: Photography and the Development of U.S. Immigration Policy, the most recent installment in the excellent “American Crossroads” series from the University of California Press.

As the United States increased the regulation and restriction of immigrants in the late nineteenth century, photography, which had been used by police departments to aid in criminal identification, became a key visual component in the effort to control foreign bodies at and within the country’s borders. In Sight of America combines the disciplines of immigration history and the history of photography in a brilliant examination of how the legal demand for photographic identification shaped the implementation of and negotiation around immigration laws. As Pegler-Gordon skillfully argues, “Photography played an important role in the delineation of the nation as a technology to control access to national membership and as a means of representing the members of the nation” (12). Her study reveals that as much as government officials may have hoped that photography would provide an infallible association between virtual and actual subjects, immigrants found ways to manipulate the evidentiary and symbolic functions of the photographic image to their own advantage.

The book takes a thematic, chronological, and geographic approach to answer its central question: “How does the history of immigration policy change when we look through the prism of visual culture?” (7) Pegler-Gordon begins with two chapters devoted to Chinese Exclusion and the introduction of photographic identification in the 1890s, centering on Angel Island in San Francisco, where the majority of Chinese immigrants sought entry. She then devotes two chapters to the use of photography at Ellis Island, where Europeans landed, and includes a lengthy section on well-known photographer Lewis Hine. She concludes with two chapters that follow the history of migrant identification along the border between the United States and Mexico. Along the way she connects these different borders through various points of comparative analysis. But what binds all of these places and peoples together is her focus on the emergence and adaptation of photography as a technology that would solve the dilemma of immigrant identification but that never fully delivered on that promise.

From the first immigration statute in 1875, the U.S. government stigmatized people from Asia, and from China in particular, as an undesirable, inassimilable group. The 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act denied naturalization to Chinese immigrants and restricted their entry (excluding merchants and diplomats). Immigration historians, including Roger Daniels and Erika Lee, describe Chinese Exclusion as a watershed that helped solidify the identity of the United States as a “gatekeeper” nation. Far from the popular image of the United States as a melting pot, immigration laws shut the doors of entry to groups assumed to be racially inferior.

In addition to visually based regulation through medical inspection, photographs were required of Chinese immigrants as early as 1892. By 1909, the U.S. government made photographic identification mandatory for every person of Chinese descent regardless of citizenship status (except diplomats). The Chinese were the only group forced to maintain photographic identification. At a time when state-controlled photographs included rogues galleries on display in police stations, the association of criminal deviance with identification photographs was already well defined. According to Pegler-Gordon, “Chinese found the photographic requirements offensive both because of their connotation with criminality and because they recognized that photographic identity documentation could be used to harass all Chinese in the United States” (25).

When more traditional forms of protest failed, Chinese sought to circumvent the negative connotations of the identity photograph by providing images that emphasized notions of respectability. In the book’s most important claim, Pegler-Gordon writes that, “the expansion of photographic documentation offered a forum for Chinese immigrants to control their own representation of themselves, challenge common stereotypes, and assert their place in the United States” (42). In fact, photography could aid in the falsification of documents because the photograph could be easily exploited for either its symbolic or indexical properties. Some Chinese immigrants used formal portraits to portray wealth and station, and some paper sons (Chinese immigrants who bought a false identity) used portraits that could be placed on documents to match the immigrant’s likeness with the paper identity. Despite efforts to inhibit photo substitution, “paper sons continued to place new photographs on old documents, visually falsifying the family relationships and legal residence that they claimed in their testimony before the immigration inspectors” (74). Pegler-Gordon’s analysis of early Chinese identification photographs, which combined the repressive elements of identification images and the honorific elements of portraiture, disputes the neat divide between the two types of images that is often assumed in histories of photography. Acknowledging previous work by John Tagg, David Green, and Allan Sekula that examines state-sponsored photography, she writes, “immigration identity documentation offers an example of repressive, racialized, state-based photographic identification that challenges this photographic history” (42).

While Pegler-Gordon is not an art historian by training, she brings a deep and abiding interest in the visual image to this work. She moves with agility from broad historical context to the close reading of a single photograph. In the first chapter on photography and Chinese Exclusion, for example, Pegler-Gordon found some remarkable affidavits and other identity documentation with accompanying files, which she analyzes from the perspectives of the immigrant applicants and the immigration inspectors. One affidavit given by James Don, unearthed in the National Archives regional branch in San Francisco, shows a young man named Lee Gum Yoke, dressed in a suit and tie. Lee had to supply this document to prove his U.S. citizenship by birth and his right to re-enter the United States. Across the image someone has handwritten: “Picture Identified by Mr. Nilson Mayor of Park City.” As Pegler-Gordon writes, “The Chinese Inspector noted the reputable nature of Lee’s white witnesses and concluded that ‘his appearance is decidedly in favor of his claims’” (53). Although frontality was a common visual strategy in Chinese portraiture, Pegler-Gordon’s close reading of Lee’s image reveals that he may have chosen the frontal pose in order to show off his suit and deemphasize his Chinese-styled hair.

The chapters on Ellis Island reveal that photography was put to much different uses when the subjects were of European descent. Although immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe also faced harsh restrictions, were presumed to come from questionable racial stock, and were limited by quotas, they did not carry the same stigmas of inscrutability and inability to assimilate that were associated with the Chinese. Ellis Island became a kind of tourist trap, similar to a world’s fair, in which the gaze of the American, middle-class citizen sized up the cultural naïveté of the newly arrived European from the safe distance of an observation gallery. As Pegler-Gordon argues was the case with Chinese identification photographs, the images made of immigrants at Ellis Island also “blurred the boundaries between honorific and repressive representations” (126). In addition to calling attention to the interesting photographic work of an immigration official named Augustus Sherman, the chapter titled “Ellis Island as Photo Studio: The Honorific Ethnographic Image” deals with the well-known photographs of Lewis Hine. Pegler-Gordon argues that the tendency to characterize Hine’s work as a celebration of immigrants and a counter to restrictionist ideology fails to acknowledge his much more ambivalent position, which she supports using a close reading of Hine’s own words along with his images. Referred to by Pegler-Gordon as an “ambivalent progressive,” Hine’s photographs and captions obliquely suggest his support of the quotas that the 1924 National Origins Act mandated; rather than coming out firmly against them, his work emphasized the improvements in Ellis Island after the Act took effect.

The final two chapters of the book move the story to the border between the United States and Mexico. While this border has taken on immense significance in the current political climate, immigration laws were not broadly enforced until the 1917 Immigration Act, and even then with the requirement of photographs on identification cards, enforcement was sporadic. One of the biggest concerns on the part of immigration officials was that Chinese immigrants would slip through the border by passing as Mexicans. This more casual attitude toward Mexican migration changed, however; as Pegler-Gordon writes, “by the 1930s, when their labor was not needed and their racial identities were viewed with increasing suspicion, lack of documentation was a key factor in the Immigration Bureau and other government agencies’ ability to enforce Mexican repatriation” (193). By the end of the 1920s the Immigration Bureau required photographic identification for all new immigrants.

While there is an immense body of scholarship dedicated to the study of restrictionist immigration laws, In Sight of America is the first book to consider how photography functioned as a key visual technology during this period. That Pegler-Gordon was able to find enough primary source material for this book is a testament to her prodigious research, which includes work at twenty different archives. For anyone interested in the histories of photography and immigration, In Sight of America is essential reading.

Jasmine Alinder
Associate Professor, Department of History, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee