and I shoot when I’m in the most pain. Joe McNally credited a fellow photographer with that exquisite sentiment in the course of a workshop at the abandoned hospital complex at Ellis Island today. He taught, and led by example, shooting pictures of his own as the day progressed.
I liked helping guide the group around the complex and hearing this pro’s ideas about how to see and to show what is all around us there.
McNally, a veteran photographer (National Geographic, Sports Illustrated, New York Stock Exchange annual reports, etc., etc.) had shot Ellis Island in the late 1980s, when even the main immigration building hadn’t been fully restored and the south side of the island was a wreck. Save Ellis Island, the nonprofit that employs me as an educator, has now stabilized some spaces to what is called a condition of arrested decay.
We snooped around a lot of areas I don’t usually take tourists.
Some wards, as decrepit as they are, give off a somehow beautiful feeling. Blue was thought to be a calming paint color to use in wards, especially those housing patients with psychiatric woes, and I think it still soothes the savage breast, as playwright William Congreve said about music back in the day.
Other people helped with the tour and provided their own bright color. Charles.
I thought about Leonardo da Vinci. He said, Learn how to see. Realize that everything connects to everything else.
For the photographers today, it was all about the light. The quality of light here is very forgiving, McNally assured his students.
You feel it palpably, he said.
The weather cooperated. Dawn came up pink in New York Harbor.
Later, lightning and rain, courtesy of Fiona brushing by up the coast, offered just enough mood.
Photographers don’t all like to be bothered with facts, even at such an iconic spot. It’s usually about the framing, the exposure, shutter speed.
Some tolerated a little historical grit to accompany the visual grit at the hospital. This was a ward where the sickest of the sick received treatment, I told a few of them, keeping it simple. Or, Nurses lived in these quarters.
To whomever I could get to listen, I said, Florence Nightingale’s ideas were so important to the medical protocol here. She believed in sunshine, fresh air, and handwashing. That’s why you see so many handwashing sinks as you go throughout the complex.
Neither the sun nor death can be looked at steadily, quoth La Rochefoucauld, back in the 17th century. Perhaps it is just too difficult to stand in the hospital ruin’s spaces and really grok what went on there, that there were human beings working, suffering, being healed there. Existing. The oversized autoclave was used to sterilize mattresses so that people wouldn’t die.
Emerson said, The invariable mark of wisdom is to see the miraculous in the common. A faded scrap of carpet remains, improbably.
Coal bins in a jumble. Don’t mind us, we’re just crucial historical artifacts.
An industrial spin dryer: The Fletcher Whirlwind. We can only imagine the important folks who once did the wash here and kept everything sanitary.
The group spent time in the morgue. Nice location for a fashion shoot some day.
McNally talked about what to do if you want to impart a patina rather than shooting it raw.
The abandoned hospital complex offers nothing if not patina. Are there ghosts here? You be the judge.
One photographer actually came all the way from Lisbon to take the class – also to hang out with half a dozen pals who knew each other from the trenches. He said you can’t beat the atmosphere at the abandoned hospital complex. I said, Say spaghetti and meatballs! and clicked. Savoring the light.
You must give birth to your images, said Rilke, he who knew everything about everything. They are the future waiting to be born.