Behind The Scenes: Self Portraits in a Ruin (Part 1)

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I have an ongoing self-portrait project, Falsely Accused, that takes place at the great Eastern State Penitentiary (or as we lovingly call it:  ESP), a stabilized ruin and museum.  It’s a playground for photographers, and the art-focused management is happy to host us.  A project like this at such a facility comes with its own array of challenges.  And so I thought it would be beneficial to discuss how I have overcome these challenges and what I’ve learned while working on this project.

The Project Concept

The concept is pretty simple:  It’s a self portrait series centering around the life of a fictional inmate at the new dilapidated Eastern State Penitentiary.  As a Philly native, I have always been mesmerized by this classic prison – the first of it’s kind, a relic and a monument to methods that have long since been abandoned.  I’ll be honest, the project somewhat evolved out of some experiments that I was conducting during one visit.  I’ve always been an advocate of self portraiture for experimentation and as learning tool.  So it is common practice for me to use myself as a guinea pig.  Out of these experiments arose the Falsely Accused, a character that I loosely base on Shawshank Redemption’s main character, Andy Dufresne:  A man sent to prison for a crime he didn’t commit.  How would this person be affected by his imprisonment?  Would he wander that fine line at the edge of insanity?  Would the guards need to keep him stoked on anti-depressants?  Even more Macabre:  What if this person is alone in this massive prison as the only inmate in an otherwise abandoned facility?  And so I try to put myself in this character’s shoes, and I do my best to document his downward spiral.

Of course I have been back many times, and the project continues to grow.  As I learn more about the facility, and as I learn more from my experiments, the project evolves with my own skill set and ever-evolving style.  For that matter, I envision our poor inmate seems to be creeping further and further into insanity.  This is the basis for my ongoing project, and I have been working to develop its own unique style.

The Challenges Which Must Be Overcome

The ESP management truly is a wonderful group, and I think they know exactly the draw that they have with photographers especially.   I have never been to the museum without running into at least two other serious photographers.  And so management tries to be as accommodating as possible, but I’m sure they have their own challenges – legal and maintenance concerns not least of which.  And so there are a few rules that I must adhere to.  Below I’ll explain each challenge, and briefly how I have overcome these issues:

  • Personal Challenge:  I Operate Alone – One could add a helping hand in the form of an assistant.  But I’ve made a point to work alone on this project.  That means all of the setup, all of the gear carrying and so on is entirely in my hands.  So I try to keep my gear set to a minimum.
  • It’s Dark In There – The cells are 7′ by 9′ and most contain only a tiny window.  The electric lines have deteriorated to nothing decades ago, and natural light is really only available in the courtyards.  Supplemental lighting is an absolute must.  Even long-exposures are impossible in some of the darkest areas.
  • One Tripod Per Person - This means that the tripod is most likely going to be tied up with the camera.  I’m not permitted to bring lamp stands to place my strobes as they would count as my one tripod.  So the flashes usually get worked in wherever I can fit them, most often on the floor or bungied to a pipe somewhere.  One has to get creative with flash placement in a facility such as this.
  • Minimal Equipment Permitted - This is a bit of a gray area, but I’ve not tried to push the boundaries too much.  Large battery packs, plug-in equipment, lamp stands, sandbags and just about anything else that might clutter up the walkways or pose a risk to the museum’s other visitors is strictly prohibited.  This means that large light modifiers such as umbrellas or soft boxes are simply not an option.  Thankfully, I still have my array of great small-footprint modifiers like my sto-fen diffusers, my Rogue Flashbenders, and a new toy: The Rogue Grid.  The modifiers help me overcome the hardness of the flash and control the light in ways that you simply can’t do without for portraiture of any kind.
  • Tight Spaces – There are some larger rooms in the museum, and there are some hallways as well, but generally, most of the ideal shooting locations are the cells themselves, which I mentioned are 7′ by 9′ on average.  This doesn’t give you a lot of room to set up you equipment.  In fact, even if I were allowed to have some light stands and umbrellas, I might opt not to use them simply because there isn’t any room.  So this is a challenge, but only in the way that it eliminates how you go about setting up for a shot.  It’s shots like the one at the top of this article that really makes me realize the beauty of my simple, but effective, piece of plastic that is the Sto-fen.  But it also is cause for me to use wider angle lenses than perhaps I might want for a portrait.  No worries, I just need to make sure that things don’t get too distorted.

Tomorrow:  Case Studies

Tomorrow, in Part II, I am going to go through a few photos and break down the thought process and setup behind each.  Now that you understand the challenges I had to overcome, and roughly how I went about overcoming them, I think you’ll find it interesting to see the entire process for each shot.

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About Author

D. Travis North is a professional Landscape Architect, a Freelance Photographer and founder of Shutter Photo. Ever since he picked up his first SLR, his father's Nikon N2000, he's been hooked on photography. Travis likes to photograph urban environments, architectural details and has a new-found interest in close-up photography. His work can be found at D. Travis North Photography. Follow Travis on twitter: @dtnorth.

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