As teenagers in 1974, Phil Buehler and Steve Siegel set out to explore the ruins of Ellis Island and make a film. They lived in New Jersey, and the island was tantalizingly close to the Jersey City waterfront, then an industrial ruin (now Liberty State Park). The high school seniors rowed across to Ellis Island, where they found an abandoned ruin — a far cry from today’s popular historic site visited by millions.

In this story, Phil and Steve revisit the island 50 years later and reflect on the powerful symbolism of Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty. Both Phil Buehler and Steve Siegel are known for their photography of abandoned places, and this early project remains important to both. As of May 28, 2024, “Ellis Island” (1974) can be seen in full on the NY Times OpDocs “Encore” series, which showcases films that haven’t been seen in decades.

Produced by Susan Wallner for State of the Arts. Director of Photography: Nate Reininga. Grip: Jack Stawowczyk. Post production: Kevin Ronan.

Also watch Phil Buehler in: Guthrie at Greystone and Photographer Phillip Buehler