- Photography and the Representation of History in Georges Perec’s Ellis Island: Tales of Vagrancy and Hope
Experimentation with form is a defining characteristic of the work of Georges Perec (1936–1982). His choices of subject matter and style reveal a similar eclecticism, frustrating any attempt at categorization by verbal or visual genre, by theme or mode of expression. It is possible, however, to identify a small number of deeply-rooted preoccupations that emerge from time to time, more or less hidden behind a veil of reticence, hesitation and, often, wilful obfuscation. If Perec has an overarching project—and his occasional commentaries on the progress of his work, in interviews and letters to acquaintances suggest that he does—it is an attempt to understand the functioning of memory as it is passed between individuals, families, generations, and cultures.1 Allied to this is an interest in the relationship between people and the spaces they inhabit, which are marked by their presence. The motivation for such an attempt lies in the traumatic loss of his immediate family and in his own experience of enforced isolation, then alienation, from a cultural and linguistic background of which he knows little. The shadow cast by Auschwitz is rarely visible in his work, but its existence is inescapably there, nevertheless. The experimental and eclectic nature of Perec’s work is a response to the need to discover a means of expression, a mode of representation for that which defies comprehension and rational explanation.
In the spring of 1979 Perec crossed the Atlantic from Le Havre to New York (via Halifax) aboard the container ship S.S. Atlantic-cognac to make a documentary film for French television.2 The film, a collaboration with his friend and film director [End Page 33] Robert Bober, focused on Ellis Island and historic European migration to the United States. It seems reasonable to assume that he chose to travel in this way so that he could share, in however attenuated a manner, something of the experience of those who had made similar journeys in their millions in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In the course of the crossing Perec took several dozen Polaroid photographs of the ship and the surrounding mist-shrouded seascape. Verging on abstraction, these photographs reveal a monochrome blankness given form only by the geometric minimalism of the vessel’s rectilinear outline.3 It is a blankness that, seen in the context of Perec’s creative imagination and personal history, takes on a metaphorical significance out of all proportion to the banality of the images and finds an echo in other visual evocations of nothingness that recur throughout his work.
The two-hour documentary film, Ellis Island: Tales of Vagrancy and Hope [Récits d’Ellis Island: histoires d’errance et d’espoir], which resulted from Perec’s time in New York, is broken into two parts. In the first, titled “Traces,” a commentary written and voiced by Perec accompanies a visual exploration of the Ellis Island site, in disrepair and decay following years of neglect and partial demolition. This is intercut with film of visitors exploring the site in the company of a guide whose anecdotes attempt to convey the experience of newly-arrived migrants. These men, women, and children would wait expectantly for assessment before their eventual transfer to New York and a new life. The second part of the film, “Mémoires” [“Remembrances”], consists of face-to-face interviews with elderly New Yorkers who had passed through Ellis Island many years previously. It is striking that these individuals are less moved by recollections of their Ellis Island experience (in general, they are more interested in recounting their subsequent experiences in America) than Perec is on his brief visit to Ellis Island, despite (or as a result of) his having no direct comparable experience of migration. The purpose of this article is to examine the reasons for Perec’s interest in and commitment to the project, to set it in the wider framework of his work as a whole, and to suggest that the film, through the choice of subject matter and formal construction, offers an exemplary and more widely...