Alcatraz Island in Full Colour: On Taking the Plunge into Photography

A year ago, living in California, I headed to the infamous Alcatraz island — a rite of passage for all bay area Californians locals and tourists alike. And thankfully, sunny (for once!) San Francisco did not disappoint in providing a good experience.

We think of Alcatraz as it is portrayed culturally — black and white, bleak. We think of the inside of the prison walls, of the stories which have been passed through oral tradition by way of campfire stories and through the big-name Hollywood media machine. We think of the cell block, of sensory deprivation and stark interiors, and of the stories of the haunted pasts of the people whose lives often ended on the island (sometimes, of the stories in which these haunted pasts surpass the limitations of the grave). We think of the “ghost hunting” shows with artificially-tanned, muscle-bound hosts, castigating the dead for their perceived inadequacies in life and jumping at the slightest indication of something which could evidence their own black-and-white, apocryphally-informed opinions. Often, we think of the tourists as perhaps the most colourful addition to the site.

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Our imagination captures the idea that our experience in visiting such a place will be the same as our inner vision so permanently that anything which suggests the contrary can come as a shock — and sometimes, a cultural faux-pas, perhaps seen as “glossing over” the darker side of its representative means. For how can a place beset with memories of such pain, darkness, and sometimes, the worst examples of humanity and best examples of poor choices, be anything but what we have heard?

When I visited Alcatraz, I had been grappling for weeks with the decision to buy my first professional camera (beyond my prized, pink, first camera given to me by my father at age fifteen). I had just finished my undergraduate course in art, and was struggling with which direction my heart wanted to take it. While I was fortunate enough to be in a financial position to make the investment, the final push to press “buy” was still off-putting.

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In the past, I had been told by people I was close to that I photographed “too much”, that it consumed me, and retrospectively, they were right. I stopped the pursuit of my earliest endeavours into the photographic arts for this reason, and picking it up again carried with it the fear of being chastised. But everywhere I went, my eye would reel for a camera in my hands, and ultimately, providing myself a momentary lapse in self control to snap a photo here or there was simply not working. As a young child, I had prayed for a lens in my cornea which would close the shutter when I blinked a certain way — a prayer which had turned into a lamentation at that point. I knew I could not wait another month, but the final push came from my Alcatraz photo series, however small and comparably low-resolution they may have been — for finding colour in a place I had, perhaps ignorantly, viewed as purely black and white.

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I took the guided tour. I stood inside the cells. I shuffled along the halls with tourists wandering aimlessly in every direction. I had read intensely in weeks prior of the island’s acquisition by Native activists in the late 1960s, and of its tribal significance as a place of evil and malcontented spirits prior to its acquisition for correctional purposes for the United States. History abounds from every angle over this tiny rock of land in the San Francisco harbour. The tour of the interior seemed not bleak, desolate, or illustrative of an inmate experience, but like a side show at a carnival.

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But as I walked around the grounds of Alcatraz, among the gardens which, previously maintained by inmates enabled to do so on the basis of good behaviour, were as much a testament to the island’s heritage as anything.

On the outside looking in, and in viewing the outside in portals and windows from the inside, a more authentic experience emerged — yes, life on the inside was bleak, desolate, and at many critical junctures, probably an affront to human rights.

But to portray it in this light alone — through the lens or otherwise — devalues the fact that an ‘outsider’s perspective’ is all most visitors will ever have, and lessens our ability to empathise with those who did, in fact experience life on the block — sometimes with a temptingly technicolor view of the world they were cast away from.

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My eye was drawn, increasingly, to these more colourful aspects of the Island for that reason — the rusting keyhole, the blue ocean viewed through a broken window with white sailboats drifting ever out of view, the irises lining the steep steps to an observation point, staring back at my own and imploring the pursuit of one of my most natural inclinations. It was windswept, it was heartbreaking, but it was beautiful, and it was in full colour. I bought my camera the next day, I have stopped every five minutes since to shoot, wherever I am, and I haven’t looked back since. I never will again.

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Ashes to Ashes

In recent hometown news, a near-hundred-year-old barn on the UConn campus was claimed by a three alarm fire. Built in 1922 and elegantly framing the walk near the UConn Dairy Bar, a favourite spot for locals and students alike (well, locals only when the students are gone…), the barn, and the others like it, was a significant part of my childhood. Other structures on campus of similar age and historic value have stood in significant symbolism for as long as I can remember, others, iconic of the University itself, including the Farwell-Jacobsen Barn which sits atop Horsebarn Hill Road.

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Fall Foliage, Horsebarn Hill, Storrs, Connecticut 2014

As a child, my Father and I would walk the family dog among the fields which framed it. My Mother, Grandmother, and I would frequent the Diary Bar in the summer (again, when the students were mostly gone), walking in its shade and admiring its window boxes. A couple of meaningful dates. A few close encounters. A first meeting. Several breakdowns in its midst. And, of course, many more happy times, befriending local barn cats and admiring bunnies which scurried into fields alongside.

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Window Box, UConn Dairy Bar Ag. Maintenance Barn, Storrs, Connecticut, Summer 2016

I have come to understand that home will change, particularly when the place I call home geographically is itself the same town as a University seemingly keen to build new things every month, but I digress. It seems at times the Universe has ways of reminding us when to close one chapter and begin the next. Its demise is a timely contradiction to University expansion which reaches for the sky more each month.

It often feels that people in Great Britain imagine New England, and even more specifically, Connecticut, to be pastoral havens for eccentricity framed with colourful leaves and wisps of snow once in a while, often forgetting some of the persistent issues the region faces. Barn fires, in particular, have ravaged property in the region since its settlement. It is always a tragedy, and in this case, the only fortunate thing was a lack of damage to livestock, animal, and human life.

I photographed the barn (and other parts of my hometown) when I was visiting my parents this summer and choose to remember it in the state which I saw it in then, rather than the image of a ruinous pile of ashes, embers, and general decrepitude which is circulating the internet today.

I would ask anyone who hears of the fire or also has memories of the barn and location as it stood to remember it always as a peaceful and beautiful complement to the town, and most importantly, to actively consider the other iconic places in life which we all too often overlook. Connecticut stereotypes are true at least about one thing: our communities and neighbourhoods are often strong (especially in the Quiet Corner), and I know all of my neighbours are rallying around each other.

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Top of Horsebarn Hill, Storrs, Connecticut, 2010

 

“Sky’s On Fire”: Urban vs. Rural Reactions to Fire

On March 5th, 2017, a fire tore through a Scrap Yard in Govan, Glasgow, sending plumes of billowing smoke skyward — much to the curiosity of Glasgwegians. On the streets in City Centre, on campus at the University, and in Partick near the River Clyde, bystanders at bus stops and crossing the street stood frozen in awe of the never-ending formations forming from the billowing smoke.

A few months ago, I was living and working in Northern California when wildfires tore through the hills, blackening everything in their path. Wildfire crews worked around the clock to extinguish the flames, but not before a fair amount of damage had already been done. There’s only so much which can be done for a wildfire when the fields of sun-dried grasses present an opportune tinderbox for even the smallest flame (I reflected on that experience with an essay and photo series here).

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After The Fire II, Brooks, California © Caroline C. Evans Abbott 2016

In both scenarios, a fire commands the attention of powerless bystanders who chance upon it or its effects. But in stark contrast to fires in urban areas, bystanders can be few and far between, only seeing the effects of a blaze up close and personal when it’s on their doorstep.

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Lake Berryessa Fire, Brooks, California, (c) Caroline C. Evans Abbott 2016

But in urban areas like Glasgow, Scotland’s largest city by population, human reactions happen in real-time, expressing emotion and concern for something which instantly hits close to home. The outrage, concern, fear, and sadness hits every citisen within hours of the first spark.

IMG_4214.jpgAnd fire crews in urban areas clearly have a different set of parameters to work with: tasked with extinguishing a flame in an incredibly high-risk area where human life flourishes and congregates.  Urban areas are engineered around accessibility, and while battling a blaze in a densely populated area carries with it its own logistical issues, a wildfire taking multiple acres of land per day in the midst of some of the most unforgiving terrain in the world for motorcars is not an easy task — simply getting firefighters and tools to the periphery is a critically challenging, dangerous, and very costly endeavour.

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Urban Fire Under Glass, Glasgow, Scotland, (c) Caroline C. Evans Abbott, 2017.

Even from the safety of a cozy flat, there are few views which are not inclusive of a fire’s effects in some light — and the longer it burns, the more this issue presents itself. The slightest change in vantage point in an urban area will reveal the fire’s presence even if the fire itself is not directly visible: the demeanour of bystanders going about their day to day, the chatter of a local shop, a television or radio giving updates. Concern hangs thick in the air.

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Fire’s Effects Linger in the Atmosphere, contributing to Beautiful Sunsets — themselves often a product of pollutants. Glasgow, Scotland, (c) Caroline C. Evans Abbott 2017

But in California, where the Lake Berryessa fire burned thousands of acres, outrage, while certainly felt amongst NorCal’s population, was not as personal: it wasn’t on their doorstep… yet.

We have something to learn from the discrepancy between these events not just for their obvious differences, but chiefly, for their overall commonality. It is critical for the preservation of forests and the management of wildfire, particularly, that accessibility to personalised images which demonstrate fire’s impact on human and animal populations are distributed — because otherwise, human populations will always continue to be more terrorised by a lit match in a humid cement jungle than in a massive field of hay.

Dichotomy and Balance: Hidden Worlds in Old Town Edinburgh’s Alleyways (Photo Series)

Edinburgh is a city of human industry, harbouring the elite who live comfortable lives, the tourists who splurge and indulge in cultural experience at the same instance as the students, the poor, and the homeless. In many ways, the cold, metropolitan sister of Glasgow seems more her cultural foil than close relative. Frequently regarded for her friendly acceptance and treatment of travellers local and foreign, Glasgow is in many ways a more authentic experience of Scotland than the tourist-prone Edinburgh could hope to be. But with some of the most iconic sights in Scotland within or just minutes from its borders, Scotland’s capital city ranks highly on the list of places to see for many world travellers, and with good reason.

In the wealthy parts of Edinburgh, Scotland has never looked more beautiful. The district close to the castle, known as “Old Town”, is perhaps the most frequently visited (and inauthentic) Edinburgh experience a visitor can have. Close to the castle, winding cobblestone streets play host to expensive sports cars darting between buildings before vanishing out of sight, revving their engines impatiently though fully equipped knowledge of the restriction borne upon them by the nature of the antique streets. Well-dressed men in suits and ties weave between tourists; women with tiny dogs and expensive haircuts (who have somehow managed to procure magic potions to restrain their hair even in near one hundred percent humidity) wobble insecurely on cracking sidewalks, grateful only for their presence as an alternative to cobblestones; tired looking restauranteurs post chalkboard placards in the street with what’s on offer for the day’s fish lunch. The heart of the city breathes with the disease of tourism in its veins, tied to that which sustains it as the dregs of culture swims for deeper depths, desperate for oxygenation. It is night to Glasgow’s somehow-sunny days )between the ever-present rainclouds).

But even within these less authentic parts of Edinburgh, authenticity is to be found through its illustration of internationally shared sociological problems — and the presence of their solution.

Winding through the streets of  Old Town, alleyways overtake your peripheral vision: the especially dark, damp, and dirty looking sort your mother warned you about and your father probably darted between as a boy. Cigarette butts, old newspapers, garbage — nothing to look at, particularly in light of the more fantastic sights just beyond. But these alleyways play host to, and frame in their own right, the sights which surround them. Through their frame, we are able to see Edinburgh in a new light: the fantastic, upheld symbolically and realistically, by the less fantastic sights surrounding them.

The alleys which see homelessness, people rooting through the bins, people standing outside of student accommodation smoking their stresses away, are the same alleys which catch glimpses of young love, of castles just beyond them, of jokes between friends, angsty teenagers spurting their misdirected rage into colourful patterns sprayed onto walls, or of pigeons consorting with a strange, tall man with brightly coloured trousers and an even stranger affinity for carrot cake. The city’s economic and cultural disparities are well portrayed by peeking down the alleys (perhaps a bit farther than you dare). It is by looking through these alleys and those like them by which the visitor to Edinburgh will truly be able to see into in this city’s soul for all its diversity, and find balance within.

 

Hues of Old Glasgow

Glasgow is a friendly city rife for exploration even on the coldest of days. The winter brings with it the evocation of drab imagery: it is expected that every day spent wandering in this bitter season will include only gales from the North Atlantic to match the monochrome surrounding denizens whose wardrobes seem to have submitted to the bleak conditions. Fortunately, aside from the frigidity of the atmosphere, none of that is accurate… at least not all of the time.

The city is, of course, unforgivingly cold in the winter. Humidity hangs motionless in the air and sinks into even the most weatherproof of clothes indiscriminately. Citisens and visitors old enough to have errands appear as regularly as ever, going about their duties, where children seem less easily affected by the cold, darting between alleys and streets chasing one another on scooters and bikes. Aside from the historic tenement flats overlooking some of the city’s most popular roads, their ancient architecture looms over modernised storefronts as occasional, glamorously sleek structures blink between them.

Living here demands recognition of this fact: it is a confluence of old and new at every turn, an undeniable embodiment of the cyclical nature of life. History is patchworked into every element of life here even in the most modernised parts. Often, this overlap is felt most strongly through the creative freedoms taken by residents of tucked-away homes and buildings: using colour and quirkiness to underline the overlapping ages through architectural self-expression.