How do you select the shots for a photo essay, in this case, a photo essay of Jersey City?
That depends, in part, but only in part, on what you want to “say” about the city. Do you want to say it’s seen better days, that it’s over the hill? OK, what pictures convey that? Old buildings in poor shape, that’ll do it. Do you want to say it’s a good place to raise a family? That’s going to be a different set of photos, perhaps a school, a church, a tree-lined residential street. How do you say it’s an up-and-coming economic powerhouse, a faceless behemoth of the post-industrial economy?
But what if you don’t want to say anything in particular about the city? What if you want to present the city, as it is? And what, pray tell, might THAT be? Does anyone know? And how do you get your head around that in pictures? How many shots do you need? 100? 372? 650? What if you have only a dozen?
Tough questions all.
But saying something about the city isn’t all there is to it. There’s the photographs themselves, their color and composition. That’s a big part of why this photo is here:
Most of the photo is in dull colors. But not that rag doll. It’s bright and cheerful, quite a contrast from the background. That’s purely visual and has nothing to do with whatever the picture is about. That’s secondary. The splash of color is first. Once you think about what’s in the image, why then there’s a story there. What’s a child’s rag doll doing in a graveyard?
Formal elements are paramount in this photo as well:
We have all these lines converging powerfully in the center. Perhaps they convey a sense of motion. If you look closely at the railroad tracks you can see weeds growing on them here and there, suggesting that the tracks are no longer being used (they aren’t). In that sense, this photo suggests the past. At the same time we have the two highway viaducts, which locals will recognize as the 12th and 14th Street viaducts; they carry traffic to and from the Holland Tunnel.
Which brings us to this photo:
There’s a sign for the Holland Motor Lodge to the left; we’re in front of the Holland Tunnel. But that’s not why I’ve included this photo. I’ve included it because it’s a moody night-time shot, and because it evokes an Edward Hopper painting.
This photo was taken in the early evening:
Yes, it’s Jersey City Medical Center and, yes, that’s Liberty Marina. And of course it’s the water, which defined Jersey City as much as the railroads once did.
But that picture is also a mood, with its purple-tinged blues, the lights, especially the red ones. And the reflections. Symmetry.
Pure composition. Geometry.
Yes, some kind of building in the lower half, but it hardly matters what the building is. What matters is that it’s grey, in contrast with the blue sky, and that it’s composed of repeating vertical elements. It’s all overlaid with a network of lines. Electrical lines, phone lines? Does it matter?
This geometry is more chaotic, but pure city:
What’s not so obvious is that it’s two cities, not one. The buildings in the far background are in Lower Manhattan, across the Hudson River. There’s very little in the picture itself that will tell you that. In order to see it, you must already know it. And what of that lamp at the left? Where’s it in relation to those buildings? Where are we standing?
Here’s another photo that puts Jersey City and New York City in the same frame:
The two cities are clearly distinct. The skyscrapers of Manhattan are bluish grey in the background while Jersey City is vibrant green of Liberty State Park is in the foreground. What editorial statement is THAT? The oldish building in the middle distance is the old Central Railroad Terminal; again, the railroad.
Here’s another, and rather different, shot in Liberty State Park:
In the previous photo we were inland looking east toward New York. Here we on a walkway along the shore, about half a mile or so south of our previous location. We’re looking north along the shore. None of those buildings are in New York City; it’s all Jersey City shoreline.
What about that fishing pole?
What about it?
I mean, it’s just there, cutting through the photo.
Is there anything wrong with that?
It’s there to remind you of space and to pull you into the photo, make you wonder who’s at the other end of that line.
(No one, it’s resting on the walk. But there was probably a guy nearby, watching it.)
Here’s another Liberty Park photo, this time we’re way at the south end walking along the salt marsh. We’re looking roughly east by northeast.
And yes that’s the Statue of Liberty tiny and to the left. But what this picture is about is light, that narrow column of light bisecting the photo on the vertical. That’s an artifact of the camera. It reminds you that this IS a photo. Puts us in the picture.
This next photo has much the same composition as the previous one, but the imagery is very different. Both photos are strongly and sharply divided into a top and a bottom, where the top is the sky.
I shot this from Hoboken Avenue near Palisades. We’re looking down the throat of the 14th Street viaduct at traffic coming out of the Holland Tunnel. We can see the high-rises of Newport in the distance, where there once was a railroad yard. But all that greenery in the foreground, where’d that come from? Where it’s always been, along the east face of Bergen Hill. But no one pays attention to it because, well, it’s just there alongside the road. You pass it going by. But look at it? Why?
What and why that blue chair?
You thought you knew Jersey City, didn’t you? Now all of a sudden it’s a mystery. How’d that boat get up there?
That’s no mystery. That’s Hurricane Sandy, upsetting the order of things.
Let’s continue on the upset. Is that an ancient stronghold up there on the hill? What ancient civilization painted those ritual designs on the walls? What do they mean? Are they protecting hidden treasure?
Or is the treasure right there, before our eyes?
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