The morning of departure, crowds of well-wishers wave and cry as they watch their loved ones board the SS Constitution
As the United States moves deeper into discussion on the subject of immigration, a photographic essay from the 1950s has re-emerged this month in the exhibit “New Land…New Life, An Italian Family’s Migration to America,” a series of vintage photographs by American photojournalist Marvin Koner (1921-1983) on display at the Keith De Lellis Gallery. Koner, who is best known for his portraits of entertainers such as Johnny Cash and Miles Davis in publications like LIFE, Esquire, and Pageant Magazine, was also known for his photographs capturing the struggles and triumphs of the immigrant population during that period of time.
In 1957, Koner traveled to Lucera, Italy to document Carmela De Maria and her three children, as they readied themselves for the long journey to America to be reunited with de Maria’s husband, Leonardo. Just two years earlier, Leonardo had been a farmer in Lucera earning $800 a year. He made his way to America, obtained a job as a laborer and was now earning $3,500 a year. With a home to live in, and money for transport, he anxiously awaited their arrival.
The SS Constitution arriving in America
The exhibit “New Land…New Life” gives us a view, through Koner’s lens, of Carmela and Leonard De Maria’s story. You will see Carmela’s emotional last days in Lucera, her lifelong home, and her sad goodbyes to friends and her mother. We view photos of her trip aboard the SS Constitution, and the arrival in America, reuniting a family that had been separated for two years. Below are a few of the many photos in this exhibit that originally appeared in a Pageant Magazine article entitled “Still The Greatest Adventure.”
A farewell dinner was prepared the night before Camela and her children left for America. Her Mother was there, as well as her in-laws, who had once lived in America, aunts, uncles, cousins and close friends. It was a bittersweet occasion, and in the end, they sobbed, knowing this could be the last time they would see each other.
Aboard the SS Constitution were other Italian emigrants, 215 of them were headed to Canada and 45 to the United States. They found the food strange, and the language of the crew incomprehensible. It took a week for the intense sadness to lift, but finally a feeling of hope brought a smile.
On the day of their arrival, the children can all be seen in their best clothing, as they see the New York City skyline for the first time. They will soon be reunited with their father, and on their way to a new home in New Jersey, where instead of one room with one bed, there will be four rooms, with a bed for each of them. Today, Michele would be about 70, Francesco 66, and Lucia 62.
Marvin Koner (1921-1983) was an American photojournalist born in New York. His work has appeared in leading magazines, and is now in the permanent collection of the International Center for Photography, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the Museum of Modern Art. The exhibit, “New Land…New Life” An Italian Family’s Migration to America will be on view through January 16 at the Keith De Lellis Gallery located at 1045 Madison Avenue at 80th Street on the 3rd floor.
While you are in that building, check out the consignment shops on the first and second floor here. Check out 5 of NYC’s Oldest Bakeries and read more about Little Italy here. Get in touch with the author at AFineLyne.