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Presence in Absence: A Visual Exploration of Camden, New Jersey

Samantha Brown

“My foothold is tenoned and mortised in granite, I laugh at what you call dissolution, And I know the amplitude of time.” —Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass (p. 36)

The following photographs depict the city of Camden, New Jersey through images of what people leave behind—words, signs, and symbols, from graffiti to grave stones, created by people as way to leave a mark of remembrance on the place where they live. While none of the photographs have people in them, they clearly illustrate places that people have been. The words and symbols shown in this series of photographs would not exist without a human intent to create something tangible. People continue to leave physical traces of themselves throughout the city, sometimes manifesting as urban decay and destruction. Despite Camden’s common association with urban life and street crime, these photographs also capture natural elements of landscape juxtaposed with the city setting. Originally, I wanted to photograph Walt Whitman’s grave, located in Harleigh Cemetery in Camden. After reflecting on Whitman’s poetry, I realized its words and meaning would be better represented in images found throughout the city, as he speaks of humanity as a whole without segregating individuals based on environmental factors. I adapted my plan to additionally visit a street that showcases graffiti by different artists. However, once I arrived in Camden, I was overwhelmed by the amount of material that not only related to Whitman’s poetry, but that also depicted Camden and its citizens through words, signs, and symbols. Moreover, the images I was surrounded by were visually striking, so narrowing down particular places to photograph was difficult. In the end, I chose to focus on three main areas: several blocks of urban decay including the street with graffiti, a home destroyed by fire, and the area near Walt Whitman’s grave in Harleigh Cemetery. The following series of photographs show Camden as a living organism, from destruction to creation to rebirth, in an environment that combines the natural world with urban decay, and all that lies in between.

“I depart as air, I shake my white locks at the runaway sun, I effuse my flesh in eddies, and drift it in lacy jags. I bequeath myself to the dirt to grow from the grass I love, If you want me again look for me under your boot-soles.” —Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass (p. 68)

I chose to photograph Camden using two different applications on my Android phone because I wanted to use a more recent technological development with an older, yet timeless aesthetic. Similarly, Walt Whitman’s poetry shares that older, timeless aesthetic in that it is concerned with the human condition, nature, sensuality, and humans’ roles as members of the universe—topics that remain relevant today. While Camden has developed drastically since Whitman lived there, certain parts of the city remain in a perpetual state of decomposition. Furthermore, I chose to use applications on my phone rather than analog cameras and film because I wanted to experiment with a multitude of filters and effects in a relatively short amount of time, as not to linger in potentially dangerous areas for too long. In the same regards, I wanted to keep my equipment minimal but maintain the option to change “cameras.” One of the applications I used, FX Camera, provides a variety of “camera” options including ToyCam, which can then be manually adjusted for different effects including color modes and vignettes. Similarly, the Retro Cam application simulates six different toy cameras which have fixed settings. Out of those six, I mainly worked with the Hipsteroku, FudgeCan, and Pinhole filters. However, once I was able to view the photographs on my computer, I decided that I like the quality of the photos taken with Retro Cam better. As Susan Sontag (1973) states in her article “Photography,” “In deciding how a picture should look, in preferring one exposure to another, standards are always being imposed on the subject.” Hence, my choice to use only photographs taken with a specific filter correlates to my understanding of Camden, especially in relation to the context of Whitman’s poetry. All of the photos I included in the essay were taken with the Hipsteroku filter (based on the Hipstamatic 100, a cheap plastic analog camera), which provides a medium-high contrast, medium color saturation, intense color leaks, clean scratches on the “film,” and a white border. The effects produced by the Hipsteroku filter most closely match the aesthetics of Whitman’s poetry and capture Camden’s essence in a refreshing, yet honest light. For example, the color leaks provide a subtle flush of reddish, “afternoon” light, adding beauty to the images of the burned house. In other filters, the burned house appears ominous and foreboding, but that style disagrees with the connotations of Whitman’s poetry and the messages written on the house itself. The contrast of the warm colors against the charred wood gives the burned home a positive aura. The writing on the home also shares a positive connotation. The phrase “Please Shed Light” is written in the center of a sun shape on the front of the house. Rays of light extending off of the sun include words like “Community,” “Health,” “Housing,” and “Education.” Similarly, the photos from Harleigh Cemetery attempt to demonstrate Whitman’s love for humanity in their aesthetics. In Leaves of Grass, Whitman (1855) writes about this love:

I see something of God each hour of the twenty-four, and each moment then, In the faces of men and women I see God, and in my own face in the glass; I find letters from God dropped in the street, and every one is signed by God’s name, And I leave them where they are, for I know that others will punctually come forever and ever. And as to you death, and you bitter hug of is idle to try to alarm me. (p. 66)

Whitman’s ability to see God in all things can be interpreted as a divine connection between humans and their environment, and he recognized that people’s attempts to leave physical traces of their existence behind—whether in the form of letters in the street or gravestones—is a form of divine beauty. But, as a caretaker of wounded soldiers in the Civil War, he also saw a world inevitably filled with pain, suffering, and death: “Formless stacks of bodies and bodies by themselves...dabs of flesh upon the masts and spars” (Whitman, 1855, p. 53). However, his experiences did not negate, but rather enhanced, his perceptions of a divine interconnectedness and beauty within humanity. The photographs of Harleigh Cemetery depict the reality of the place while subtly enhancing its beauty. Out of all the filters I used, the Hipsteroku best captures that idea because the added tones of warm light simulate the essence of divinity without distorting the images. In “Photography,” Sontag criticizes the medium and its participants (i.e. photographers) for the implications associated with defining a subject as “worth photographing,” especially if that subject is “another person’s pain or misfortune.” Sontag argues that the act of taking the picture implies that the photographer has “an interest in things as they are, in the status quo remaining unchanged.” Therefore, by photographing Camden in states of deterioration or poverty, Sontag might infer that I’d like it to stay that way. Clearly, that is not the case. Like Whitman, I recognize the cycle of destruction, creation, and rebirth in all human contexts. Finding beauty in that cycle is as natural as the desire to mark the earth with some form of remembrance or significance—a sign that says, “I lived.” In fact, the cycle of rebirth may often begin at the point of creation or destruction as a direct result of a person’s desire to leave a symbol of existence behind. In addition, Sontag’s singular view of photography contrasts with Victor Burgin’s (1977) idea of a non-unified “heterogeneous complex of codes upon which photography may draw” from his essay “Looking at Photographs” (p. 131). In other words, Burgin states that “there is no language of photography,” but he does acknowledge how presence and absence affect how we make meaning, which coincides with the basis of this photo essay in that human existence is present despite the physical absence of people (pp. 131-132). Burgin goes on to say that the ways in which we interpret and discuss photography have many layers of intertextuality, and images are often grounded in text (p. 131). For example, many of the images in this photo essay contain actual words from signs, gravestones, graffiti, etc., and all of the images are grounded in the context of Leaves of Grass because of my rhetorical choices. In relation to Burgin’s idea of “the structure of representation—point-of-view and frame,” we will take a closer look at the second to last photograph in the series in which Whitman’s tomb blurs across the background. While the text on the tomb is still clearly legible, the image focuses on a close-up of a shrub nearby the tomb. Tiny details of the shrub’s leaves, buds, and stems occupy the foreground. Because the photograph focuses on the plant’s reproductive parts, it correlates with the cycle of rebirth—a common theme in Whitman’s poetry. Then, the shrub begins to blur and fade into the background, creating a

diagonal line that frames the image for the viewer. As Burgin contends, this frame helps the viewer understand and contextualize the image. Similarly, the diagonal line draws the eye from the tomb (man-made) back to the shrub (natural) and vice versa, allowing the two ideas to coexist within the image and the viewer’s mind. The diagonal line created by the division of the foreground and background is also mimicked on Whitman’s tomb. The diagonal line on the tomb runs parallel to the other, centering the words “Walt Whitman” in between them. Because Whitman believed he would return to the earth in death, the pointof-view of his tomb from amidst the shrub visually represents that belief. The order in which the photos are presented aims to guide readers on a journey through evidentiary remnants of human life in Camden’s urban and more natural settings. The first image shows a sign that has graffiti on it to signify the entry into an urban environment. However, the background is not cluttered with buildings but instead features mostly sky and trees. Still, the high rise apartment complex hints that the natural landscape will soon begin to fade. Indeed, the next couple of images highlight the deterioration of Camden through a crumbling building with grave-like structures, barbwire, broken windows, and graffiti, but like Whitman’s poetry, amongst the destruction, messages of positivity and beauty stand out. Glimpses of naked shrubs or grass also mimic Whitman’s poetry by incorporating nature. Although we cannot necessarily see elements of nature in the images of the burned house, we recognize fire itself as the element that destroyed it. Finally, the image of the gate on the side of the burned home leads us into the image of the gate at the entrance of Whitman’s tomb. On the floor of the tomb, dried leaves continue the thread of natural elements. Then, the viewpoint backs away from the tomb in order to get a full picture of the landscape at Harleigh Cemetery. The final image of the tree with the carvings near Whitman’s grave shows us that even in the most natural setting, the presence of humans still remains. Through the progression of an urban to natural landscape, I hope that readers will wade in each image for a while before delving deeper into the meaning behind the words, signs, and symbols and the city where they were created: Camden, New Jersey.

References Burgin, V. (1977, 2003). Looking at Photographs. In A. Wells (Ed.), The photography reader (pp. 130 – 137). New York, NY: Routledge. Sontag, S. (1973, October 18). Photography. The New York review of books. Retrieved from n=fals e&printpage=true Whitman, W. (1855, 2007). Leaves of grass (The original 1855 ed.). Mineola, NY: Dover.

Presence in Absence: A Visual Exploration of Camden, New Jersey  
Presence in Absence: A Visual Exploration of Camden, New Jersey  

This photo essay "aims to guide readers on a journey through evidentiary remnants of human life in Camden’s urban and more natural settings....