PATCO: Photo Essay Analysis

I knew from the outset that I wanted to capture the sensation of movement when shooting for this assignment and reflect the feeling of barreling down train tracks and looking out the window as light distorts the passing scenery. At first, I attempted to use a disposable camera, but after a dry run with it, too many of my photos were obscured either due to motion blur, poor lighting, or both. So, I went through once more with my cell phone in tow using an app called SlowShutter ($0.99 on the App Store). The app offers some neat features, including tapping a part of the screen to focus, timer settings and syncs with the iPhone’s native photo app (which can’t be said of the miserable ShutterSpeed app I tried using before). The feature I relied on most heavily (solely, in fact) was the motion blur slider, which you can set from “minimum” to “maximum.” Because I was already on a moving train, I set the effect to minimum to keep the photos from coming out too blurry.

I wanted to recreate the experience New Jerseyans face when they ride the PATCO to call into question why we seem to gloss over passing through Camden and focus on our destination, Philadelphia. I start at Woodcrest, using depth of field photos of big houses (I love the motion blur on the little kid slide in front of the nearest house) and the blurriness of the Westmont station’s empty parking lot to juxtapose two different kinds of emptiness, quietness, between towns, one of calm and another more somber. And while I considered taking photos of Camden itself, I thought it would be better to just take photos of what one can see from the train because, as Errol Morris wrote in Believing is Seeing, “The whole act of creating a photograph is an act of cropping reality (165).” Yes, Camden is home to Cooper, a well-respected hospital, a Rutgers campus and the Susquehanna Bank Center, a popular concert venue, which are nice, but do not erase the reputation Camden has earned itself locally and nationwide over the years. Because there are glimpses of of urban decay when going through Camden on PATCO, I highlighted those objects to serve as representative of the state of the entire city.

To demonstrate the broken down-ness of Camden, I included photos like the fallen brick building(s?). I find the picture works so well because it is framed by a passing tree on the right and rubble from a standing wall on the left, and it appears as if thousands of bricks are spilling through the frame. How long have they been there? House many buildings did they compose? How do tens of thousands of people pass by them every day and yet no one cares to remove the eyesore? I also wanted to juxtapose the buildings that had graffiti on them with those that did not. For example, the photo I took of the stained off-white building (the pattern even kind of makes it look like it was by design) communicates the same sense of age and abandonment as the tagged walls of old buildings, but in a different way. In another shot, the tagged walls are framed by shrubbery that appear to point toward the graffiti, as if someone had stepped over them and repositioned them to gain access to their canvas.

In crossing the Ben Franklin Bridge, you can almost feel a sense of relief that you’re putting Camden behind you and reaching one of the most historically significant cities in our country. My favorite shot of the essay if of the Philadelphia port, with the Camden waterfront out of the frame. Then, the shot of the 15th / 16th and Locust stop of the lines of the stopped train and the woman stopping by the steps to do her makeup before she leaves the station and heads out onto the street. To contrast with the graffiti seen throughout the ride on Camden buildings, at the 12 and 13 and Locust station is a beautiful, colorful mural on the side of a building, framed by a traffic light and the PATCO signpost. And then, finally, we see the upturned perspective at the tall buildings as you walk back underground at 8th and Market to leave, watching the oncoming bridge traffic blur by as you prepare to zoom past Camden again. As Roland Barthes wrote in “Rhetoric of the Image” ” … the photograph … establishes not a consciousness of the being-there of the thing … but an awareness of having-been-there (278).” Between my frames through train windows, bottom-to-top perspectives of Philadelphia’s tall buildings and motion blur over Camden, I hope to have imparted that consciousness unto those so they can experience it as if they were there (minus the hassle of having to receive change in the form of Sacaqawea coins jingling in their pockets the rest of the day).

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