Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Last week's Photo Tour - A chance to explore the abandoned areas of Ellis Island

Last week I was in New York for two presentations at B&H Photo (which should be posted on YouTube sometime in the next 2-3 weeks), and for a one-day photo tour of Ellis Island. But this wasn't just any old photo tour of this historic location. We were wearing hard hats and going into the old abandoned areas that are not open to the general public. Come along and join me as I take you along on the journey.

Here is a photo of the main building on Ellis Island. This is where most people go when they are on the island. This building houses the museum and has the information on the 12 million people who passed through Ellis Island as they entered the country.

After we got off the boat, we met up with our guide who instructed us on the do's and don'ts for the tour.

(Photographer's note: As you can see, we had overcast weather. I was very happy about this, because it meant that we would not have to deal with harsh light on the exterior of the buildings and coming through the windows.)

The abandoned area of Ellis Island is located on the South side of the island. The New Ferry Building, which you see here, actually connects the North and South sides. What is interesting about this building is, there was supposed to be a clock at the top of the Art Deco clock tower, but there was no budget for the clock, so it was never installed.

We were going to spend the bulk of our time in the old hospitals, pictured here. At this point, we all had our hard hats on, and we were ready to roll. For this photo tour, I decided to keep it simple and rely strictly on my Canon 5D Mark IV and Canon 28-300mm lens.

After walking down a long straight hallway, we came to the "Y". This is where each immigrant was inspected by the doctors. If they were deemed healthy, or only having minor injuries, they would turn to the right and head down this curved hallway to be cleared for entry.

If the doctors saw any signs of disease, the patient would be directed to the left to the Contagious and Infectious Diseases Hospital, where they could be treated for all kinds of bad stuff. Some people were even sent back on the boat they came in on. Can you imagine?

One of the first rooms we entered was the laundry room where we saw old washers and driers.  We all walked around this room and captured photos of the old artifacts. There was just a ton of character between these old decaying walls.

We walked inside and out, as we toured the large hospital.

I saw this old fire hydrant surrounded by grass and flowers and loved the scene.

This is the insane asylum of the hospital, made more obvious by the wire cage surrounding the facility. You will notice the artwork in the background. This is part of the UNFRAMED Ellis Island project by JR, with numerous art installations throughout the unrestored areas of the hospital. You will see more in this blog post.

As a photographer, I love seeing shapes and patterns through my lens. I was walking by this exterior wall, when I saw this window and old covering. I just love the shapes working together, and even included the broken ledge as part of the image.

This was one of my favorite images from the day. I think that this room strikes the perfect combination of disrepair and artwork. And we had just the right amount of sunlight entering the room through the windows. Not too harsh, but enough to give us some shadows from the old chairs. Love it!

It was fun to walk through the long hallways and peer into the individual hospital rooms, where patients were isolated from each other. Each room had it's own story to tell.

Much of the South side of Ellis Island was heavily damaged during Hurricane Sandy. I saw all of these broken windows and decided to shoot them through a nearby glassless window and JR's artwork. I took this photo at f/5 to have the distant windows in focus and blur the artwork. I think that this effect adds to the mystery of the scene.

We came upon this room and I could not figure out what I was seeing. It turns out that this is a sterilization chamber for the hospital mattresses. (Photographer's note: For this shot, I cranked up the ISO of my Canon 5D Mark IV to 3200 and turned down the exposure compensation to -0.7. You might wonder why I would darken an already dark scene. Well...I did this for two reasons. 1. I wanted to make sure not to blow out the bright area in the background of the image. 2. It helps buy me a faster shutter speed, since I am effectively telling the camera to let in less light. I am then able to pull out some of the shadows when I retouch the photo in Adobe Photoshop.

It was really surreal to walk into the old morgue. You can still see the overhead light, sink and vaults for the coffins.

We were all walking around this room and shooting different details. I turned and saw many of the workshop attendees taking photos, and grabbed this frame. But I also thought that, since there were different levels, this would make a good place for a group shot.

We got everyone together and did a group shot here. What a good looking group, huh? :)

Anna was in the morgue, shooting through a window, and all I saw was the perfect light hitting her face. I took one shot and noticed that her face was being overexposed. I quickly rolled the exposure compensation of the camera to -1 and took this photo.

For another hour, we continued investigating different rooms of the hospital. There was so much about this room that spoke to me. I love the patterns of the old paint on the walls combined with the peeling wallboard. The old hanging lights, pipes and artifacts just added to the scene.

I kept reminding the workshop attendees to look at, and photograph, the details.

At one point, I was all alone in this hallway and was transfixed by the light. I turned up the ISO to 4000, since it was pretty dark in this hallway, and took this shot at 1/100 sec. I really liked this shot as is, but thought that it would be even stronger converted to black and white using SilverEfex Pro (free software).

After converting the image to B&W, I definitely like it even better than the original color version.

Another room with the UNFRAMED artwork.

This room was a favorite for many of the workshop attendees. We all liked the sunlight entering the small opening of the window and hitting this one chair.

We entered the hospital kitchen and the first thing we noticed was the large stove hood. At first I was confused about the artwork, until I took this shot and turned the camera upside down. The artist, rightfully so, thought that the hood looked like the upside-down hull of a ship. So he created artwork to play off of that. Do you see that?

This was another favorite photo of mine from the day. I saw this light entering the room and washing across this old sink. Once again, I turned down the exposure compensation of my camera (-0.7) to accentuate the dark shadows in the image.

I love the old patina of this sign.

It was towards the end of our photo tour and we walked away from the hospital building. As we crossed the grass, heading back towards the North part of the island, I turned and saw the Statue of Liberty just off to the left of the hospital. I took this photo since it shows the proximity of Ellis Island to Lady Liberty.

After eating lunch, we all walked around the public area of Ellis Island and explored some more. Unlike the last time I was at Ellis Island (with my wife and daughter), we did not have clear day for photographing the skyline of New York City. But, I still liked the scene with NY draped in clouds.

We were just getting ready to get back on the ferry and head back to the city when I saw this one lady looking for a name on the wall of immigrants. I was drawn to the single person and her repeating reflections on the metal wall. I thought it made a perfect ending shot to our awesome day.

For those of you interested in doing this tour with me. I am planning on doing it again (and hopefully getting even more access) in late October. If you are interested in joining me, please click here to send me an email.

And also, remember that you and your friends can enter your email address at the top right of this blog to get an email any time I write a new blog post.
If you are interested in purchasing ANY equipment, please click here to go to B&H Photo, as I get a referral from them if you enter this way. It does not change the cost to you in any way, but it helps me keep this blog up and running.
Check out my upcoming photo tours to amazing places around the world.


Brian said...


I have been following you for a while now and really love your work, your passion for your profession and love the fact that you are always willing to help or offer your opinion or suggestions to anybody that asks. I have never made any comments before now but these photos and your brief story/description of each one really are amazing. I am from Canada and have never been to Ellis Island but these are some powerful photos that really told a story to me like no others ever have.

Keep On, Keepin' On,

Ruth Navis said...

I love these photos! What an interesting tour! That would be so cool to see inside all those old buildings fill of history.

Anonymous said...

Love these, Jeff! I am passionate about photography and my favorite things to photograph are landscapes, old buildings, etc. Love your blog and comments on the photos... Takes you back in time