GLASSHOUSE OF IMMIGRANTS – Jill Enfield
“…this ever-evolving diversity challenges the idea of a single dominant vision of the American identity, encouraging Americans to embrace inclusion and pluralism.” – Ellis Island Museum.
“The New Americans” is a physical display of heritage, genealogy, and homeland. My paternal relatives fled to America in the 1930s from Frankfurt, Germany. I was brought up by immigrants and wanted to create a project that honored immigrants’ integral role in our society while simultaneously representing the hardships they still experience to this day.
I am intrigued by how both traditional and digital photographic practices make their mark on the creative process. I combined 19th-century wet collodion ambrotypes with digital scanning and 21st-century printing. Collodion, and the distressed exterior window frames that hold the glass photographs and make up the glasshouse. The windows were found on abandoned side roads, flea markets, and construction sites.
The collodion references the same technique used to record immigrants who traveled through Ellis Island in the 1800s. By fusing the elements of old and new, I created portraits that reflect both historic technique and the reality of contemporary existence, which unfortunately parallels that of some of the first immigrants. A glasshouse was made from antique windows and portraits. The distressed exterior echoes current adversity and is a ghostly homage to past immigrants. My goal was to communicate concepts of heritage and immigrant hardship in tangible form by utilizing the original process in which immigrants were photographically documented.
Photography relies on the balance of time and light to bring visual elements to the surface. The wet collodion process requires long exposures, so each subject must sit still for 45 to 60 seconds. The viewer should experience what I heard and saw during that time-lapse. It is in that stillness that the narrative journey begins for the photographer, and ultimately the viewer. It is in that silence, that the viewer becomes the listener. Within my sitter’s face, I saw the generations that have gone before and those yet to come and want the viewer to be moved by the same emotions that I am moved by as I am taking the portrait. These photos seek to capture the far-reaching heritage and stories encoded in the eyes of each of my subjects.
Once the final 7’ x 7’ x 7’ glasshouse is assembled, visitors can walk through and around it to experience the transparent portraits from different angles. Shadows of people walking around the house are visible in the interior and exterior so it becomes a moving experience for immigrants past and present. The glasshouse is an interactive piece in that people can walk around and through it, creating different shadows for the viewers’ experience. In addition, they can take their time and look at each glass window on an individual level to understand the diversity that makes up the house and our country. If you removed one panel the house would fall.
The old adage; “Those in glass houses should not throw stones” resonates as one looks into the eyes of the New Americans to realize that we are all immigrants; it is this understanding and awareness of heritage and history that is key to a more empathetic and compassionate future.
3-minute video on installation of glasshouse: