REMAINING A Photo Essay by Elle Jaclyn Krout
INTRODUCTION I grew up where the ocean meets the Pine Barrens, and if there is one thing to take from growing up in this place is that nature has more power than people often realize. From hurricanes to tree roots slipping through cracks in the foundation of a house, it can be a very volatile place to live. Often when we think of ghost towns, we think of full towns still standing, left abandoned over time. But it's hard to have ghost towns here, where the trees grow thick and the weather can be hard. While Centralia, PA still stands in it's full glory, places in New Jersey like Ong's Hat, Fries Mill, or Hampton Furnace rarely get to stand, untouched for very long. Which is why I choose to photograph the remains of towns left behind, surrounded by woods, and un-preserved. My original intention was to photograph a series of places, but poor weather did not permit the far hikes that were required visit many sights. Instead, I focused on one: Weymouth Furnace. Once a forge, than a collection of paper mills, it was permanently abandoned the late 1800s or early 1900s, left in a section of woods that would wreak havoc on the foundations, walls, and roofs of the buildings. While the deterioration process was helped along by a breaking dam early-on, more of Weymouth Furnace remains than most other abandoned town cites in New Jersey. What stands is predominantly foundation, with a few selection portions of walls. The land has since been purchased by the state and turned into a park, but even with attempts as preservation it's clear the forest is wild and strong, with weeds, flowers, and trees growing strong in the wake of the former industrial cite.
The most visually interesting of my photos taken is also the one that does not display the remains itself, but instead takes in the area around the foundations and walls. Barring the visual cues for one moment, it's the image that explains best of all what my intention was when undertaking this assign: The clash of the man-made fence and the dirt showing the struggle because nature and human creation. The fence also shows that while it can (try) to keep people out of the remains, it cannot keep out nature. The effect was gained through using a prism, and while originally a mostly-incidental test image, for me it became the most meaningful. Looking at the image, it is a small space: The depth of field is low, the focus is on the whole image because the whole image is one small area of land. Where most other images I took focused on larger sections of Weymouth Furnace, this was only a few inches of ground and chainlink. You cannot really take in just a section of the picture, because it functions so specifically as a whole. This image most specifically relies on the rule of thirds: One third of the image is chain-link, one-third is also dirt (about one-third to one-half of the image is occupied by both). There is no ground at the top of the image â€“ instead it is chainlink fence and indistinct green background â€“ where at the bottom is it just the ground, no fence. Take away these proportions and the image would be less interesting, and the fade probably less pronounced. It would not look like two images becoming one, but two images stitched together, which would not have the same story or impact behind it. There is also a surprising amount of movement in a photo that is taken on such a small level. The chainlink fence is not directly flat in the picture. Instead, there is a curve that takes the viewer's eyes from left to right, following the bend of the metal links. Had the fence been straight-on the image might have been prettier to look at, but it would lose some of the dynamic nature is has: And I did not want a pretty image. Instead, I wanted these images to be strange, a little weird, and a little confusing to look at. And this picture, above all, achieved that.
REFLECTION Although I wanted to capture the impermanence of structures against nature I did not want to rely on too common a medium. Using a disposable camera seemed too obvious, and cell phone too modern, so instead I looked for way to modify the way I take photos on my Nikon camera. While at first I considered “the Vaseline trick” the idea of bringing Vaseline out into the woods to take photos seemed all too dangerous and messy, so I searched for other options. I eventually settled on what I was hoping to be a mix of two techniques: Using a toy Holga lens to get a shadowed, dreamy (or nightmarish) image, and using a glass prism in order to make my pictures look either haunted, double exposed, or somehow filtered without actually having to do any of these things. Woods can be frightening – especially given that destructive ability of a forest if left alone with man-made buildings. Even the heavy bricks of furnaces and paper mills aren't safe against roots, trunks, and tree limbs. In that way, these remains are like ghosts themselves, a reminder of something that was one there, but is no longer. When I got to the destination to take photographs, though I had to rethink my plans, however. With the rain, it was too dark to use the Holga lens without the picture being mostly black. With that no longer an options, I experimented with the prism, getting a number of photographs through that. In most of these images I tried to use the reflections of the dark trees against the gray sky to get the overlaid effect I wanted when photographing the ruins. In a few, I also managed to capture the (limited, rarely-seen) light a few times to get a more rainbow-like effect. Nature overtaking man-made buildings may be frightening, but it is also beautiful – magical, even – too. But I also wanted to use more than one technique when taking photos, so with the Holga lens no longer an option, I looked to my surroundings. A chainlink fence surrounded three sides of the ruins, and after some experimenting with trying to take certain photographs at certain angles through the fence I realized that if I angled and pressed my lens up against the fence in just the right way it would blur enough to look like a framing effect itself. So in exchange for the vignetting of the Holga lens, I got chainlink vignetting which worked just as well, if not better: Because of this technique I was able to use one photo in particular (fifth in this essay, of the ground and the chainlink fence fading into each other) to act as a sort of transition image, relating to both the chainlink-vignette images and the prism photos: It's the fence done with the prism, so it all worked out to me. After all the images were taken, I focused on editing. I dislike losing the proportions of the photos I take – I tend to plan things out without cropping in mind when shooting – so any cropping down was very minimal. Otherwise, I preformed the general photo tasks of doing some color balancing, and sharpening if needed. For a final change, a few photos I switched to grayscale, because I found that when in color they did not read as powerful or as interesting – or as haunting – than when in color. Often these photos were heavily gray due to the bricks anyway, and the few slashes of green color from the foliage looked strange and took away from the atmosphere I was trying to cultivate.