On The Way To Cape May: Phantom Portraits Of My Hometown

The photographs that comprise this series are the first of their kind that I have attempted thus far. My vision was to take photographs that capture a dream-like quality which might suggest the sense of place you have just after waking up—the memory of your dreamscape slips from your consciousness like a vapor just as you try to grasp it. This is the impression that comes to mind when I think of my hometown, Cape May. I was deeply inspired by Susan Burnstine’s work in Absence of Being and wanted to explore a similar theme on my own. Admittedly, this is a theme that is challenging to articulate and even more so to embody in terms of image.

Walking down the sidewalk downtown feels like you’ve stepped back in time one hundred years; there is a quaint kind of old-world charm, yet also a beauty that is distinct in its haunting quality. The compositions are images that I took while on a walk downtown, in the Washington Street Mall and along the beachfront. The images have an otherworldly, vapor-like quality to them—they look almost as if they are gradually materializing from another realm, only to disappear.

Victor Burgin states in Looking at Photographs, “When confronted with puzzle pieces of the ‘What is it?’ variety (usually, familiar object shots from unfamiliar angles) we are made aware of having to select from possible alternatives, of having to supply information the image itself does not contain. Once we have discovered what the depicted object is, however, the light and dark tones, of uncertain edges and ambivalent volumes, it now shows a ‘thing’ which we invest a full identity, a being” (p. 133).

What is it exactly that infuses an image with a haunting, ghostly quality? Imagine for a moment,  that as your eyes pan a scene, your brain forms a “blueprint,” and all the while your mind is aggregating nuances in the image—“jumps” in the algorithm of standard form, shadow, light, and contour if you will. The ‘nuances’ are actually subtle, visual aberrations. You can’t pinpoint the source, but your subconscious generates an impression which is a glimpse of a kind of dual existence, embodied within the same image—one is pedestrian and ordinary, it’s the world around you. But there’s more, yet you can’t quite connect the dots. Your skill of recognition stands suspended—no longer are you the observer—the collective ‘whole’ speaks to you as a ‘shimmer,’ a flash in the pan, and forever remains out of your mind’s grip, always beyond your sight. You perceive a thing, yet the frame of reference eludes you. Now, you are the one caught up in a bigger picture.

In my representation of this place, the images embody a ghostly essence, as if the veil between the physical world and the spirit realm has worn thin—in the way that you might picture the hand of a person who is reaching toward you, the way the outline of their fingers form an impression on a bed sheet hung up to dry. The visual plane in Phantom Portraits is peppered with these sorts of nuanced otherworldly ‘indentations.’ Translated into the language of the photograph, we might say a ‘blur in the image’ is a single note that was sung, belonging to a revenant chorus.

As part of the process of experimentation to achieve my desired surrealist effect, I applied double and triple layers of saran wrap over the lens of the camera on my iPhone 4. I intentionally waited for a day that was very foggy in order to capture the diffused quality of lighting. Originally, I was going to showcase the color version of the photos however, the black and white filter in my editing program intensified the dream-like quality. Additionally, I chose the black and white filter because it allows the images to speak more as a unified whole in the narrative thread of embodying the haunting beauty and otherworldly presence that is the essence of Cape May to me. I added a vignette to subtly frame the image; however no other special effects were used nor were they necessary. The combination of the diffused light, fog, and layers of saran wrap achieved a phenomenal effect that was over and above what I was hoping for.

You can view my project on Issuu, here.

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This entry was written by CHRISTEN JANINE OTTER and published on March 30, 2012 at 11:58 pm. It’s filed under Christen Otter's Posts, pe, Photo Essay, Photography and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post.

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