Behind The Scenes: Self Portraits in a Ruin (Part 3)


“Falsely Accused: Two Slivers of Hope” by D. Travis North

If you’re just joining us, this is the third iteration of a three-part series.  In short, I have a project that features a series of self portraits featuring the incredible Eastern State Penitentiary (ESP).  In the series, I play a fictional character who is   In Part 1 of this series, we discussed the overall intention of this project, and the difficulties and challenges involved.  In Part 2, we went behind the scenes and evaluated every step of the creation of the self portrait titled Grooming.  Today, we’re going to look at a different photograph, Falsely Accused:  Two Slivers of Hope, which is shown at the right.

“Two Slivers of Hope”

This is a rare room at Eastern State Penitentiary.  In most of my previous self portraits on the property – save for the ones that were taken outside – I was confined to a 7′ by 9′ cell.  Over the years, many of the cells were converted to serve other purposes – a chaplain’s office, a synagogue, and so on.  I have no idea what the purpose of this room was.  It is in one of the newer cell-blocks, and it is the only one of this size and shape in the entire facility.  Maybe it was an office or a guard station.  But never mind that, for the purpose of this portrait, it is my cell for the shot.  Aside from the size and shape of this cell, the really unique aspect is that it has two windows, and both are relatively close to the ground.  In most of the other cells, you can’t reach the windows, or they’re aimed towards the sky and so no scenery is available.  I did several shots in this cell, but with this one, I wanted to explore the emotions of the Falsely Accused if he were given the opportunity to see beyond his walls.  And so my goal was to establish a clear difference between the gloomy environment within the cell and the freedom barely visible through the windows.

Before I get into the technical details, I want to point out that this photo, unlike Grooming which was taken on Jun 20, 2010, Two Slivers of Hope was taken back on April 12.  You’ll notice I am wearing the same shirt and the same shoes in both photos.  This is intentional.  In fact, I am wearing the same shirt in every photo of the series.  My goal is have some continuity between the shots.  I have a few concessions, reluctantly, such as my shoes.  The shoes I was using when I started the series two years ago have long since imploded.  But otherwise, I’m trying to maintain as much continuity as is feasible throughout the series, as if all of the photos were taken on the same day.  This may seem minor, but it is a major concern when I think about the setup every time I return to ESP.  Such continuity will make the series seem much more complete and much more uniform.  Keep your viewer’s thoughts in mind when contemplating such a series.  They don’t care that the shots might have been taken a year or three apart.  Continuity – in as much as is feasible – is paramount to the success of the series.

The Setup

Like most of the indoor spaces at ESP, ambient light is nearly non-existent.  Despite having two windows, they don’t contribute much light, and there are no electrical fixtures to speak of.  Let’s add an additional challenge:  Less gear.  During my June visit, I was traveling with two flashes.  Back in April, when this shot was taken, I hadn’t yet replaced a flash that had blown.  So I was working with only a single flash.  With all the modifiers in the world, a single flash in a dark and gloomy space is not ideal.  But challenges are always fun, and so I worked through it.

I started by setting up my exposure for the outside walls of Cellblock 3, which is just visible through each of the narrow windows.  This may seem moot, but keep in mind my intent – I want the Falsely Accused to have desires beyond the walls of this cell.  As you would expect, the result is that the darkness of the room really stands out.  In fact, the darkness exhibited at the left and right edge is pretty close to what I would get without supplemental lighting.  The good news is that I didn’t need to worry too much about my face as it is illuminated quite well using natural light.  The real struggle was getting the rest of the room to look good.  I wanted to preserve the gloominess, and I wanted the shadows to be a major aspect of the photo.  So it’s time for supplemental lighting.

Since I am not very talented at standing incredibly still, slow shutter was not an option.  So I framed up the shot with my camera on a tripod and got working on the flash.  Camera left at about breast height, I hooked my flash – my Nikon SB-600 – to the pipe that runs around the room (you can see part of the pipe below the windows).  Bungies weren’t working for me, so I fastened the pocket stand that came with the flash to the foot, and cantilevered it between the pipe and the wall.  I was then free to aim the flash head wherever I needed.  Using a large Rogue Flashbender, I snooted the flash.  One of the beauties of the Flashbenders is that they are bendable.  They have velcro tabs along the sides that you can roll it up into a tube to create a bit of a snoot and focus the light at a narrow area.  Obviously, this is aimed into the corner.

The first test-shots of the scene didn’t really make me happy.  The snoot was too tight, there was too much hiding in the shadows, including the window wall.  And quite frankly, I, as the subject, was not so well defined.  So a few experiments ensued, and I modified the Flashbender.  The Flashbender has three tabs of velcro along each edge, and I previously had it set for a full snoot.  I discovered that opening the front most tab of the Flashbender, almost like opening one’s polo shirt collar, I was able to let the light spill out the edges slightly.  So I opened the edge and rotated the flash so that the open edge was pointed towards the window wall, and the results are clearly visible.  You’ll notice the hard edge along the right wall and floor closest to the camera – that’s the solid edge of the Flashbender.  The open face spills light with soft and less defined edges along the balance of the area.  This subtle change was just enough to fill in some of the darker edges, particularly around me.

So I envision a question that might arise at this point:  Why not shed the light directly on me?  Well I tried that, but I didn’t like the effect.  As grungy as that right wall looks, it’s just enough whiteness to reflect the light into fill light.  Besides, a change in light angle was placing the hard edge in line with the corner, and it didn’t feel right.  But I guess that’s a preference.  Thanks to the semi-snooted flash, however, I was able to get enough light onto me to complete the shot.  The the indirect light actually seems more natural and less forced, as if the light source is an actual fixture.  A goal of mine in my work is for the light to at least make sense – I don’t want it to be obvious that I was using supplemental light sources.  Now, if I were to reshoot this photograph, I would certainly want to introduce an additional light source low and camera right with a snoot at a much lower power just to fill in and soften the hard shadow that I am casting onto the window wall.  But I am otherwise quite happy with how the shot turned out.


It may be difficult to believe, but I really didn’t do much in post.  It is usually my goal to minimize post-processing, but there is always something in need of a few tweeks.  In this case, I bumped up the clarity to make the edges of the windows and some of the peeling paint pop out.  I also slightly tweaked the color temperature to make it slightly warmer.  In truth, when you’re working with un-gel’d flashes, the light can be a little too white.  A nice side effect was that the stains in the walls – particularly the rust stains below each window – really came out as well.  Next, I did adjust a few of the saturation levels on specific color channels.  I dropped the greens slightly and I punched up the oranges so that I could really pull the warm tones out of those walls.  Strange as it may seem, I find the warmer tones of the walls to be comforting – even in such a ruin.  Finally, I did my usual noise correction and the final product is as shown here.

Final Thoughts

The Falsely Accused project has truly become a second love for me.  I find myself constantly thinking about new poses, new emotions and new spaces to explore at this facility.  While that wasn’t the expected outcome, it is certainly welcome at this point.  More-so, I am happy to say that the project has introduced me to a number of interesting puzzles; each with it’s unique set of challenges that I must overcome.  I do believe I’ve learned a lot from each situation.  It is my hope that you have also learned from the two setups I have outlined as part of this series.  I truly encourage each of you to take on such a project…maybe not in a ruin, but something that forces you to think.  Fear not the many discarded exposures and failed experiments.  The outcome will truly be worth the effort.


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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