In response to:
Tales of Manhattan from the May 18, 1978 issue
To the Editors:
Robert Towers’s discussion of Stieglitz’s “The Steerage” in his review of New York Jew (NYR, May 18) perpetuates a widely held myth concerning this photograph. What is depicted, according to Towers, is a group of immigrant Jews approaching the promised land, i.e., the United States.
Stieglitz has written about the circumstances surrounding the photograph.* It was taken in 1907 on an eastbound crossing of the Atlantic. The obvious poverty of the people shown suggests that they might have been potential immigrants who were rejected at New York. If this is so, it is ironic that this photograph has become a symbol for the very opposite of what is in the picture.
A. David Wunsch
Lowell, Massachusetts 01854
Robert Towers replies:
Alfred Kazin’s autobiography reveals his perfect awareness that “The Steerage” does indeed depict passengers on an eastbound voyage—a fact of which I, as his reviewer, was also made aware. If Mr. Wunsch will look again at the text of my review, he will see that I carefully limited my identification to the words “Jewish immigrants”; the phrase—“approaching the promised land, i.e., the United States”—is Mr. Wunsch’s own contribution. Whether these Jewish immigrants were arriving from or returning to Europe is immaterial; the important point, symbolically, is Kazin’s identification of the shawled woman in the photograph with his own immigrant mother.
See for example Photographers on Photography, edited by Nathan Lyons, Prentice-Hall 1996, p. 128. ↩