Progress (thankfully)

Barber Shop — Eastern State Penitentiary, PA © jj raia

Barber Shop — Eastern State Penitentiary, PA © jj raia

At one time, holding the famous gangster Al Capone, Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia, is an interesting place to explore. Photographically, its unique interest lies in allowing it to remain in a state of natural and continuing decay which is in complete opposition to most historic buildings that are lovingly restored to their original “beauty”.

Receiving its first prisoner in 1829, and closing in 1970, the prison was eventually stabilized after years of abandonment, and opened to the public for daily tours in 1994. A part of its history housing criminals is described in an article from the Philadelphia Public Ledger, August 20, 1929, which describes Al Capone’s cell:

   “The whole room was suffused in the glow of a desk lamp which stood on a polished desk…. On the once-grim walls of the penal chamber hung tasteful paintings, and the strains of a waltz were being emitted by a powerful cabinet radio receiver of handsome design and fine finish…”

Al Capone'e Cell © Jo Bolton

Al Capone’s Cell © Jo Bolton

Lucky we have an accomplished photographer in the Triangle who managed to photograph the cell with the lights on. Jo Bolton was kind enough to share this rich, well crafted photo (above) to get an idea of what it may have looked like when Al Capone was in residence. Unfortunately, there were no lights on when I visited and never made a photograph of it, although I did visit it. As you can see, not exactly the suffering and deprivation of most other inmates.

Barber Shop — Original © jj raia

Barber Shop — Original RAW © jj raia


Barber Shop — Original Edit © jj raia

Barber Shop — HDR and Original Edit © jj raia

Looking through so many images for a video on structures, I came across the image directly above. It is the end result of the post processing I’d done at the time, early in my digital transformation. As a combined image, either run through HDR software within Photoshop Elements or blended, it was finished in Lightroom, and at the time, felt it was an accomplishment. In fact, there were many images from an entire day spent within the prison, from opening until closing, all processed in basically the same way. Some results were better than others, but as I look through them today, the processing is at best, poor. As you can see in the original edit above, it is nicely composed, evenly lit, actually too evenly lit… and lifeless!! No drama… barely any shadows even though the main light source is the skylight above… no directing the viewers eye to what was deemed the main subject… colorful, but still lacking any emotional content or impact.

After overcoming the initial revulsion, an attempt was made to see where some additional post processing would take it. The basic intent was to darken the areas that would not have received much light from the skylight. To accomplish that task did not involve much in the way of sorcery, just a few simple radial filters and brushes to actually make it appear that light was coming from above as it was, instead of from everywhere as it appears in the original edit.

Now the viewers eye is directed toward the barber’s chair through the gloomy darkness into the light that actually seems to come from above, and the greater range of light values lends a bit of drama. I’m not sure if this image has ever appeared in a previous post, but if it has, I apologize. But the real takeaway here is that as experience is accumulated in both our technical and observational skills, that experience will eventually flow into our work. The bad thing though, is that experience can’t be rushed. It takes time.

2 thoughts on “Progress (thankfully)

  1. I heard the same rumor, too!! Eastern State Penetentiary is a pretty interesting place to photograph. I have only been there in the summer when the sun is high in the sky, and wonder if the lighting is best at that time of year. Winter would have an angled shaft of light and might not light the cells as well. It’s an easy place to get lost in for an entire day.


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