photo essay

Photo Essay: Remaining

I originally posted this to the wrong blog and just didn’t notice for five days.

View it on Issuu!

I grew up where the ocean meets the Pine Barrens, and if there is one thing to take from growing up in this place is that nature has more power than people often realize. From hurricanes to tree roots slipping through cracks in the foundation of a house, it can be a very volatile place to live.

Often when we think of ghost towns, we think of full towns still standing, left abandoned over time. But it’s hard to have ghost towns here, where the trees grow thick and the weather can be hard. While Centralia, PA still stands in it’s full glory, places in New Jersey like Ong’s Hat, Fries Mill, or Hampton Furnace rarely get to stand, untouched for very long. Which is why I choose to photograph the remains of towns left behind, surrounded by woods, and un-preserved.

My original intention was to photograph a series of places, but poor weather did not permit the far hikes that were required visit many sights. Instead, I focused on one: Weymouth Furnace. Once a forge, than a collection of paper mills, it was permanently abandoned the late 1800s or early 1900s, left in a section of woods that would wreak havoc on the foundations, walls, and roofs of the buildings. While the deterioration process was helped along by a breaking dam early-on, more of Weymouth Furnace remains than most other abandoned town cites in New Jersey. What stands is predominantly foundation, with a few selection portions of walls. The land has since been purchased by the state and turned into a park, but even with attempts as preservation it’s clear the forest is wild and strong, with weeds, flowers, and trees growing strong in the wake of the former industrial cite.

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PATCO: A photo essay

Since 1969, the Port Authority Transit Corporation High Speed Rail has shuttled New Jersey commuters to and from work in Camden and Philadelphia. Beginning in Lindenwold, the train carries tens of thousands of passengers every day through South Jersey into the city of brotherly love. Riding the train reveals a lot about New Jersey and its relationship to Philadelphia, but perhaps more importantly to South Jersey’s relationship with Camden, the most crime-ridden, impoverished city in the country.

Though the Ferry Avenue station is above ground,  the Broadway and City Hall stops are underground. After riding along the middle class suburban homes down Haddon Avenue through Cherry Hill, Haddonfield and Collingswood, looking out the windows of the cars shows a stark transition between the rest of SJ and Camden: Dilapidated, graffiti-tagged buildings whiz by on one side, while lots of totaled, abandoned cars line on the other. It’s almost as if, when coming up from the underground and onto the Ben Franklin bridge, passengers are escaping from the dregs of a forgotten city with the promise of Philly as they cross the Delaware River, emerging from one of the stations into the bustling cityscape.

This photo essay demonstrates that journey from the quiet suburbs to Philadelphia through the city every NJ resident would rather not think about. Monday through Friday, the PATCO delivers people to and from work, and on weekends it brings 20 -and-30-somethings to Old City to party in Philly’s budding nightlife scene. Despite living in such close proximity to it and traveling at hmmm mph through it, we don’t really give much thought to the blemish of Camden we consider it to be. The following photos capture that attitude and the glimpses of Camden we only see for a few moments as we’re on our way to our office or to the bar.

PATCO

Disconnected: A Photo Essay Refections

Disconnected: A Photo Essay explores the relationship between hands, shoes, and our personal identities.

 

 

Reflection 1: On the Choice of Camera and Photographs

There were a number of possibilities for the camera that I could use in this project.  Should I use a disposable camera in order to reflect the idea that we treat our hands as disposable objects, ready to be used and then discarded until future use?  Should I manipulate the images with filters and cropping to draw attention to specific moments?

After careful consideration, I chose a digital camera, a Sony Cybershot DSC-W530.  There’s nothing inherently special about this camera: the features are for the ease of amateur photographers, not intending for the user to be overwhelmed by possibilities.  This camera best suited my needs in a couple ways.

First, a digital camera captured the texture and detail of the hands and shoes.  The lines, wrinkles and age spots wouldn’t appear on a disposable camera the same way they would on a digital camera.  The shadows in the mesh or fabric of shoes were brightened and intensified by using the digital camera.

More detail, the kind a more advanced camera captures, would have greatly enhanced the focus I was trying to portray.  However, in weighing my options, I chose instead to capture natural images of people who were comfortable with being photographed.  Even with a simple camera, when I first began taking pictures, I got a series of questions signaling their discomfort, especially those I didn’t know.  What did I want them to do with their hands?  What was the purpose?  How many people were going to see?  These first photos felt staged and awkward because the subjects were so uncomfortable.  They didn’t show the natural dichotomy between hands and shoes that I was looking for.

Using a digital camera also allowed me to “sneak” some pictures.  Digital cameras don’t draw attention to themselves the same way professional cameras do: nearly everyone owns a digital camera in this technological age, even if it’s the one built into their phones.  If I had a digital camera out, looking at the screen, others did not spare a second glance.  To counteract some of the nervousness of the subjects, I could take the photos of their hands first and inform them after, showing them the pictures and asking their permission to use them in the essay.

In this technique I captured a series of photos from various subjects.  I carried a camera with me everywhere I went, always on the lookout for interesting activities.  I photographed many people in order to have a wide variety of tasks to show in the essay.  The more I photographed, the more I became aware of the best light, the best angle.  For example, in one photograph, the subject wanted to light a cigarette.  If I looked at his hands from behind, where he was shielding the lighter, his hand was dark and difficult to see.  From the front, the flame became a central focus, illuminating both the lines on his hands and the scene around him.

After taking the images, I edited all of the photos in Picasa.  This relatively simple editor allowed me to adjust the images of hands by adding a soft focus, blurring the background so that the viewer paid attention to the detail of the hands in action.  I cropped each photo meticulously until each was aesthetically pleasing to the eye.  In some photos, I also adjusted the saturation and the shadows in order to draw out more details that the camera couldn’t capture on its own.  The photo of a woman holding up a stethoscope, for example, became more appealing through adding more shadows: all of the unique shadows in her hands were also heightened.

I chose the images in this photo essay not only for their aesthetic qualities, the ones that simply were the most intriguing after I edited them, but also for the way that the hands and the shoes spoke to each other.  How did the hands of a girl in slicing cheese in a deli slicer, equipped with hot pink nail polish, relate to her purple shoes?  How did hands flipping through a magazine relate to black leather boots, only half-laced?

These images told a story in themselves, of an identity trying to assert itself no matter what task the hands were meant to do.  The photos in the essay were chosen for their particular dynamic between hands and shoes, when the relationship was clear or when it called the relationship into question.  Juxtaposing the images with each other, and then with the words that the person used to describe themselves, brought the relationship between all three elements to the forefront.  Together, they crafted the identity of these twelve individuals.

 

Reflection 2: Composition and Rhetorical Theories of a Single Image

This photograph of a butcher cutting meat has been one of my favorites from the beginning, but it was not until I considered the theories of photography that I discovered why.

It is first aesthetically pleasing because it follows several key theories of photographic composition.  The Digital Photography School advocates the use of various textures for a more appealing quality.  Here, the contrast of the smooth, reflective knife blade contrasts with the rough lines of the hands, calling the lack of clarity in the hands themselves into question.  Knives, with one purpose, are clear.  Hands, with many, are worn down.

We are drawn to the knife because of its difference to the rThe Butcher's Handsest of the photograph.  The knife, in turn, becomes a leading line.  As Photography Mad outlines, leading lines guide the viewer toward the subject and through the photograph.  Here, the curve of the knife blade directs the reader from one hand to the other, drawing importance to both actions.  The viewer sees how the subject holds the blade, with purpose and skill.  The way he holds the meat on the other end of the blade also speaks to his professionalism, drawing attention to the way the hands seem to act all on their own.

And where is the person behind those hands?  By cropping the subject out of the image, I emphasize how the importance of hands has been lost.  Photography Mad explains that the need for cropping arises when “the main subject is so small it becomes lost among the clutter of its surroundings.”  If the photo included a whole person cutting the meat, the viewer would focus on elements that more truly told the story, like his body language or his facial expression.  Not one glance toward the hands, but the whole picture of a person and his story.  In cropping, I narrowed the vision of the reader away from this man’s life.

In addition, the knife symbolizes power.  As Sean Hall, in This Means This, This Means That, explains, through a symbol, the “meaning that is created is related to the nature of the object” (32).  Those who wield knives have control over those that do not.  The butcher has control over that piece of meat, over the way it is sliced and the way someone else will receive it.  The focus of this image seems to reflect this amount of power.  If we follow the knife, we are brought to the hands that guide it.

Yet there is nothing inherently powerful about this image.  Errol Morris, in his book Believing is Seeing, argues that photographs do not make any arguments for themselves.  The arguments come from the ways that the viewer interprets the images: “Images are plastic, malleable, and lend themselves to any and every argument” (217).  They become a testament to the way that the viewer wants to see them.  We want to believe that the hands wield this power.

What is the truth behind this photograph?  Is the butcher empowered by his occupation?  Or is he stuck in a dead-end job, where his hands complete tasks mechanically and with no gratification?

I influenced this perception for the viewer by only showing the hands in a moment of power.  Morris believes that “the minute you select one photograph from a group of photographs, you are doing something very, very similar to manipulating reality” (164).  Here I only showed the deft movements and precise methods, but not the attitude or the emotion.  I created a powerful man by only showing this moment of power.

“Here is Your Garbage” Reflection

When choosing what kind of camera I’d use for my Photo Essay Assignment, “Here is Your Garbage“, I was a bit overwhelmed by the possibilities. Vaseline on a lens? Disposable cameras? Once again, I was forced to consider the technological dimension of composition, and how it is tied to the quality and effect of what I create. I’d have to make a decision that wasn’t based off of mere convenience; I’d have to consider exactly what I was trying to capture, and let that inform my decision on what type of camera to use.

When I decided on taking pictures of trash, I concluded that texture was a huge element that I’d want to capture. I wanted to show trash in shocking detail and texture—from the small pieces of glass blending into the sand, to the countless discarded items stacked in piles and heaps. To capture such detail, I concluded that a DSLR camera would best serve my needs. Using a Nikon D3100, I didn’t feel limited by the touchy focus of a camera phone, nor by the blurry, sharpness-lacking pictures from a disposable camera.

Once I had the camera, I still needed to know what to look for. The landfill, of course, contained a lot of trash. This place was definitely the easiest site to gain material. All over the place were piles of trash—televisions, chairs, tires, glass, plastic, paper. It was grotesque to see trash in such volumes, and capturing it made a powerful punch for my photo essay. But the photos from this place alone only showed half of what I wanted to show about trash. I wanted to show garbage in more mundane, approachable contexts.

I headed into Philadelphia the next weekend to take my last round of photographs. This was after our in-class workshop, so I had a fresh new set of questions and a sharpened critical sense to bring with me. When I got there, there were plenty of trash cans and dumpsters to choose from along with some construction sites with debris that would, as I presumed, get sent to a scrap yard—or perhaps even a similar landfill to the one I photographed the weekend before. It was all great, but I knew there had to be more, subtle things that I was missing. I was, after all, a member of my own audience; I needed to find the ‘waste’ that I and everyone else overlook.

I started looking in smaller places—areas behind the dumpsters in back alleys, potholes, the open spaces in sewer drainages. I found that these smaller places contributed just as much as the epic, voluminous heaps I had been photographing prior. For instance, I walked past the soda can lodged in the sewer drainage bars several times before seeing meaningful and aesthetic value to it. First of all, the diagonal lines of the metal bars served as an aesthetically-pleasing background to the can, which was so perfectly lodged between them. It cried out its own meaning—trapped in a sort of unintentional net from the hidden, underground collection of disposed cans beneath it—an unwanted but inevitable result of our consumption and disposal habits.

It was easy for me to manipulate them in Picasa after the fact. I scrupulously cropped every picture in my Photo Essay, but I also took some editing a bit further. I found that adding sharpness to some pictures intensified the texture. This came in handy for close-up pictures in particular, highlighting every little wear-crack in the shoes on page 16.

Also, adding saturation to my pictures made them a lot more vivid, and even retracted the view from the textures to the colors and text as was effective in some cases. My picture of the “All Natural Clean” container on page 4, for instance, was a lot more dependent on the text on the container than each individual piece of trash behind it. So, by adding saturation to the photo, I shifted the focus to the larger, bolder text—highlighting the irony of the words “natural” and “clean” on a plastic container in a landfill.

Finally, I feel that the soft focus tool in Picasa was fantastic—almost like a semiotic cheat code to bring the viewers’ focus to what I want them to see. In the picture wherein the bulldozer is pushing trash across a pile on page 5, I used the soft focus to direct the reader to the trash that is being pushed. Conveniently, this included an intact chair and what appears to be a suitcase. Now, the viewer can see the trash pile for its parts.

 

 

Photo Essay: The Image of a Child

Over the last few weeks I have been studying the medium of photography, a topic I have never really explored or studied before. I read not only about the historical signifance of photography from Alan Trachtenberg’s Classic Essays on Photography as well articles from the likes of Annette Kuhn, Victor Burgin and Susan Sontag, but I have questioned my own authority when it comes to taking photographs. To perhaps show off what I have learned in a very short time, I have completed a full-length photo essay by tapping into my own childhood and analyzing one photo based off of photography and semiotic theories. This is part memoir, part academic, but an interesting read none the less that relies on just one photograph. Click the link (that will direct you to ISSU) below:

 

The Image of a Child by Christina Maxwell

Proposal: With These Hands

I would like to photograph the hands of people as they go about their daily activities.  I would not photograph faces, but would focus solely on the hands and their various trials.  The photos should show differences for blue collar and white collar jobs, for class differences, and how much the subject cares about themselves and their own appearance (in the sense of hygiene and public appearances).

After this, I will ask the subjects for a picture of their hands with open palms, and ask for a brief account of how they define themselves – as a friend, a mechanic, a student, etc.

I want to do this project to see the differences between classes of people, the way they define themselves, and if those are correlated at all to how much they “use and abuse” their hands.

There should be less ethical dilemmas with this photo essay than my other proposals because the subjects are actively participating in the photos.  That’s not to say they will be posed, but I do not need to hide my intentions in order to get candid shots.

I will use a digital camera to take these pictures, perhaps altering the color and clarity of the photos depending on the hands in the photograph, to emphasize specific lines and features that may not be visible in normal conditions.  I also have a Minolta XG-M that I may use to control the focus more, and I would not need to worry about being apparent as I did with the other proposals. I want to experiment with wrapping each of the cameras in saran wrap to see the effects of that as well.

Proposal (Take 2): A Mile in Their Shoes

As a new topic for my photo essay, I would like to focus on the subject of shoes.  This ranges from athletic shoes to dress shoes to the beat up comfort shoes of those who can’t afford them, along with the situations in which the shoes are used.  While I will focus on photographing singular pairs of shoes in their specific context, I would also like to branch further and look at the contexts of shoes when they are not being used.

I am interested in this topic because I think it is a good example of the way people portray themselves, and the way that people judge others.  Even if shoes are useful to a certain situation, there are nuances in the types of ways that people use shoes to identify themselves.  I, for example, cycle through a couple of my favorite shoes because I care more about being comfortable in daily activities.  On the other hand, my sister is running out of places to store them in her room because each pair of shoes matches a different outfit.

There will be some ethical issues (like my first proposal), although there will be less stress on getting candid photos.  The subjects may be aware that I am taking their picture without effecting the general purpose of the photo.  However, in some cases where candid photos may serve a greater purpose, I would still be photographing people without their permission.

I will use a digital camera to take these pictures, perhaps altering the clarity of the photos depending on the shoes in the photograph.  A photo of more beat-up shoes, for example, will have less clarity than a photo of stilettos.  I also have a Minolta XG-M that I may use to control the focus more, but it would not be as inconspicuous as a digital camera in these public spaces. I want to experiment with wrapping each of the cameras in saran wrap to see the effects of that as well.

Proposal: The Distance Between Us

I choose option one for my photo essay, in recording my own series of photos.  I want to look at the physical distance between people as they communicate, from complete strangers to close friends.  I want to capture the body language that we use every day subconsciously, to show how our feelings change our body language.

To do this, I will attend at least one open, public event, like a comedy show or band event.  The people at this location will not feel an obligation to look in a specific direction, like at a performer, as that will effect the way that they stand with each other.  I will photograph all types of people as they go about their regular social activities (hopefully without looking like a creep).  I only want to attend one event because the people there will have a specific interest, say, as one larger social group, and I will not need to worry about standing distances across cultures.

I want to do this project partly out of curiosity and also because I am interested if I do the same things as everyone else.  Or, if there is a significant pattern in the way that a majority of people with the same types of feelings stand with each other.  In particular, how people in love act around each other and their relationship status.

I will use a regular digital camera so that I do not draw attention to myself, perhaps muddling with the clarity of the photo to emphasize the status of the relationship in the photo.  That is, the people in focus will also be in focus, and the rest of the photo will be slightly blurred. I can also try taking the pictures with a disposable camera, if I want a more personal feel.

Fallow: A Photo Essay

fallow

For my photo essay, I will be using option one of the assignment for class and gathering 12-15 individual photographs on a theme. My essay is dubbed Fallow, and will be a look at my hometown. This essay will be sort of in the style of The Ruins of Detroit.

My hometown of Riverside is a slightly (though nowhere near the same scale) situation. In Riverside, much has been torn down to make may for new business ventures–yet most of it left undeveloped for years (or forever) as money or interest dry up.  I’m interested in the topic because, obviously, it is my home.

My goal for each photograph is to either match it with the structure that stood there, or else write what stood, and what was/is planned to go there (possibly, how long it has stood undeveloped). This is a big part of why I chose the topic, as many of the demolished structures were large parts of the town’s history.

I will be using a digital camera, and hopefully using some sort of software to layer in what stood over the current situation of the land to create a juxtaposition and to kind of capture a sense of loss in my final essay. If, for any reason–professor vetoes the topic, can’t find software or can’t figure out the manipulation–I plan on using a disposable camera to take the same pictures of the spaces as they exist, and then mess with the developed pictures to degrade them in an attempt to question why something in perfectly fine shape/not hurting anyone would be degraded, as a sort of metaphor for the actual spaces.

Photo Essay Proposal: Childhood Memories

For the upcoming photo essay assignment, I have decided to choose option #2, the vintage family style photograph of myself. I believe this is the more challenging of the two options and I also believe this assignment will allow me to demonstrate my awareness of semiotics, something that I have been struggling with all semester long.

I felt a deep connection with Annette Kuhn’s 1991 article “Remembrance: The Child I Never Was” as she wrote about how photographs can create conflicting memories. There were many times over the years where I would go through boxes in my household closet or attic and flip through family photo albums that contained pictures of my mother’s and father’s baby photos and pictures of their respective families and then find a slew of my baby and childhood photos, and much like Kuhn’s mother, my own mother would write either a date, a year or a location that was connected to the photo (and sometimes get the date or location mixed up with another photo/memory). There is something to be said about the time away from a photograph and how we place previous memories or expectations on a piece of paper and I would really like to dive into my own history, dig up some young photographs of myself and through my understanding of photographic history and theory, look at these vintage photographs with a critical eye and in-depth understanding.

I believe choosing this option will not only require some self-awareness of my past and honesty about what my childhood represents (today), but what those moments meant to the person taking the picture (the photographer).