In our quest to become better photographers, we focus on a lot of aspects of the medium that can result in diminishing returns. Technical skill and flat-out experience isn’t always going to help us get the best image. Sometimes all we need to create a better photograph is a fresh perspective or a new idea. This week, I’d like to share with you a photo from Shannon Adelson featuring the great Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia, PA (USA).
Full disclosure: I have met Shannon and have been witness to his shooting style, thanks to the social photography club known as Drink and Click. The setting is also one I am very familiar with. I wouldn’t say that I know Eastern State like the back of my hand, but I know it far better than the average person. I am a member of the museum and have been there more than a dozen times. I have taken thousands of photos, more than 100 of which have been shared publicly. And this very corridor, Cellblock 5, is one I know very well. So unlike many of the creators of the photographs I feature in this column, I know the setting of the shot very well and I know a lot more about how Shannon has approached the shot. That is a major reason why I am featuring his work here today, because I believe that in all my experience, Shannon saw this scene very differently and his photo of this corridor is, in turn, better than I have seen to date. I am blatantly going put myself out on a limb here by sharing my own photograph (at right), which I believe is compositionally inferior to Shannon’s.
In comparing Shannon’s photo to my own, you can plainly see Shannon’s new idea. He used a longer focal length to really compress that corridor, cutting off nearly half of the depth of the cellblock. Compositionally, this makes the scene more intimate and you can really focus in on the detail of the debris that has fallen. This also places an element in the foreground: The fallen lamp, which serves as a primary subject within the scene. The unique lighting in this corridor, which is caused by the dilapidated sky lights, is much more richly represented in his photo simply because of his perspective which causes these areas to be much more of a feature of the photograph. Even the hose behind the light is more prominent and more interesting in his photo.
So how did he get here? He simply had a fresh approach. Like many photographers before me, I happened upon this corridor and wanted to capture the whole thing in one image. The corridor is blocked by a gate and so I sidled my tripod close to the bars and fit my lens between the bars for the shot. You almost don’t have a choice unless you want the bars in the shot. Shannon, on the other hand, chose to focus on a single aspect of the entire scene, namely that lamp over on the left side. To create his image, he had to get close to the ground and very close to the left wall. It’s a situation that would not work well using a traditional tripod and the place is far too dark to hand-hold. I happen to know that Shannon has a Gorillapod, a tiny flexible tripod (for lack of a better term) which is perfect for this situation, so I suspect that’s what he used. The rest comes down to focal length. At 145mm, that hallway gets pretty short and all the details are sensationalized. The finished product is a beautiful example of focal length at its best.
So I admit it: All my experience and wisdom about photography has been beaten by a single, simple, fresh idea. Shannon’s approach to this scene is simply better, and the resulting image is more interesting. This comparison teaches us that we need to stand back and consider different options, possibly thinking outside the box or addressing limitations differently. Let this also be a lesson that you should never be too proud or too confident because a creative mind and fresh eyes like Shannon’s can (and will) more than compensate for the experience he has yet to gain.
Shannon Adelson is an experimental photographer out of the greater Philadelphia area working in all types of photography genres. Possibly the best place to find him and his works are through Google+ where he is quite active in the photography community. Fresh ideas and unique perspectives are a common thread through much of his work. So be sure to check out his offerings.