Photo collection evokes immigrants’ hopes in US

A studio photographic portrait taken at the beginning of the 20th century may have no great interest to a contemporary viewer, unless the sitter is somebody recognizable and the picture is part of one’s personal memorabilia. But when a number of these photographs are put together, the effect, even to the most dispassionate viewer, can be quite quite moving. «Eyes of Hope,» an exhibit at the Hellenic-American Union that brings together a large number of photographic portraits depicting immigrants to the US (either Greek or other nationalities) from the beginning of the last century, greets the viewer with hundreds of faces looking out of sepia-tinted photographs. In this interesting «exchange» of gazes, those images of the past acquire contemporary relevance and the viewer is moved into thinking both about the human stories that lie behind the photos as well as the broader social and historical issues regarding immigration. The images are part of a large photographic archive owned by American photographer Steefenie Wicks. The story of how she acquired those images is an interesting account of the kind of coincidences that assist in the preservation of historical documentation. The story begins back in the 1970s when a carpenter by the name of John Malonas came across a box of glass negative photographic plates in a San Francisco building that was under demolition. Several years later, he met the husband of Steefenie Wicks and some years after that gave his entire collection to the American photographer. It was another 15 years before Wicks decided to print some of the negatives and began research to trace the original photographer. Five years on, she found out that the original photographer was a Greek immigrant who had arrived in the US in 1912 in the company of his wife Urania, passengers on a ship by the name of Macedonia. At Ellis Island, he was give the name Leon Pantoti. They settled in San Francisco and, at the heart of the city’s «Greek Town,» he opened a photographic studio with the name «Photo Studio Patris,» which operated from 1914-1922. Before traveling to Greece, the exhibit «Eyes of Hope» was presented at the Municipal Library of San Francisco. It was a moving event in which several of the visitors actually recognized distant relatives in the pictures. «Eyes of Hope,» at the Hellenic-American Union (22 Massalias, 210.368.0000), ends tonight.