IMAGE TALK with Noella Ballenger: What makes that photo work…

Sometimes images come along that aren’t pretty to view, nor do they depict a pleasant location, but if the photographer can draw you in, keep your attention and get you to conjure stories in the your mind, then they have made a good choice on how to present the subject.

Learning to work with all parts of our work flow from capture to final post production adjustments is essential for a well rounded photographer. The decision making process can begin before you pick up the camera and continues until the final output is completed. 

In this Image Talk, Gary Anthes’ decisions began before he went to the site. He knew what he was going to do and went about doing it very successfully. The end result – his photograph speaks loudly to the viewer of a time and place in history that has long passed.

Along the Cell Block
by Gary Anthes

© 2011 Gary Anthes. All rights reserved.

Subject: An interior corridor of the Eastern State Penitentiary, Philidelphia

Conditions: Gary explains his image like this: “Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia opened in 1829 and closed in 1970. This is one of 12, two-tier cell blocks that radiate out of a central hub and guard tower. The red door is the rusted cover of an electrical panel. It’s a five-image HDR (high dynamic range) composite shot at one-stop increments from -2 to +2 stops. It was shot with a 16mm wide-angle lens at f22 and the camera (on tripod) set at 1,600 ISO.”


1. HDR and a high ISO add great dimension to the texture within the image.

2. The angle of the shot, along with the hard lines created by the light and shadows running the length of the central corridor and ceiling pull you through the image.

3. The red door of the electric panel has the only blast of color in the image and therefore becomes a focal point.

4. Capturing the rough textures, indirect light and strong shadows sets the mood and tone of the scene.

Noella’s comments:

This is an image that both compels and repulses and therefore becomes very fascinating. One’s imagination allows the voices within your mind to speak. And, they speak to me of the isolation and loneliness of the prisoner as well as the dangers faced by the guards walking these long corridors. No, it’s not a pretty place, nor would one every have wanted to reside here, but it is an extremely interesting place that holds your attention and that is exactly what you want an image to do. 

HDR can be noted for producing grainy, high texture images, but for this image, it is actually beneficial. By using HDR along with an ISO of 1600, the feeling of the location is “slammed in our face”. This process makes the image gritty and raw, just as life in one of the little cells must have been in this abandoned prison. It works extremely well to bring out the texture of everything within the image, from the floors to rusting pipes and peeling paint, all the way up to metal grate walkway above.

The diminishing lines of light, shadows, cells, corridor, ceiling bars and pipes pulls you from the front of the image all the way to the back and accentuates the endlessness of time spent here.

The indirect light cast through the ceiling’s metal grate creates an eerie feeling and by capturing the dark shadows along the floor in front of the cells and around the cell doors, it only adds to a sense of separation from the “real world.”

The red door covering an old electric panel is the only attention drawing color and therefore becomes the focal point in the gloom of the corridor. It is riveting because, while mimicking the rectangle shape of the drab blue doors, the strong color captures the eye and refuses to let go. No matter how long our eyes investigate the rest of the image, they are always brought back to the red door.

You did a super job on this image Gary and I really like the way you chose in advance the approach you would be taking in both the shooting of the image as well as in the post-production. It is a wonderful reminder of how, with careful thought, we can utilize a wide variety of techniques available to us in order to make an image “speak” volumes.

All written content (and most images) in these articles are copyrighted by the authors. Copyrighted material from Apogee Photo Mag should not be used elsewhere without seeking the authors permission.

Be the first to comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.