One of the great things about being relatively new to the San Francisco Bay Area (3 years, 3 months, and counting …) is that I can be a tourist in my home area and venture out on any number of photo adventures all within a 2-hour drive from my apartment.
I’ve been wanting to visit Alcatraz since I first moved up here … It is part of my work landscape every day, and seemed like the perfect subject for a photographer obsessed with architectural details and crumbling ruins … but I just never got around to doing it for no good reason other than just not heading over there. So this winter break I booked a passage on an Alcatraz Cruises boat for the day after Christmas, and was on my way …
It was a gray, cold, morning with a promise of rain in forecast, as we took off for Alcatraz Island, and those seemed like outstanding conditions to shoot such an ominous subject. As luck would have it, the sun came out for just a bit, and I was able to get some stunning color shots. The entire island is a symphony of color and texture, and I would easily go back there on another day just to shoot the exteriors in bright sunlight.
I’ll save all the official history stuff for your Googling pleasure, but there are a lot of stories on this island, spanning from the creation of Fort Alcatraz as part of the San Francisco Bay fortifications during the Civil War, through the island’s years as the most infamous jail in the Federal Prison System, to the occupation by Native Americans in the 1960’s.
Walking around the island, you can tell where the Civil War structures end and the modern construction begins. The older construction being of the same type of brick-and-mortar construction you’ll see over at Fort Point by the Bridge and other local structures from that era.
I could spend days shooting the details of the broken brick and moss-covered hallways, but found myself wishing for an opportunity to shoot the space without other tourists, or the modern signage and barriers that bring the ancient buildings into the modern day. Since that wasn’t to be, I settled on the idea of incorporating the human element into the photographs to give scale and context to the physical structures.
One of the highlights of the island is an audio guided tour of the Cellhouse that is provided free-of-charge to visitors. It includes audio commentaries from former employees, prisoners, and children of prison employees who grew up on the island. Apparently Alcatraz was a great place to grow up … As long as you weren’t doing it “on the inside.”
A special part of the facility is known as “D Block”. If Alcatraz was a prison built to house the worst of the worst, D Block was where they sent the prisoners who couldn’t live peaceably within the general population. Felons like Robert “The Birdman” Stroud, “Machine Gun” Kelly, and Al Capone all did time on D Block.
This part of the facility faces San Francisco, and it is said that prisoners could here the sounds of laughter and music coming from the yacht club across the bay … So close to all the freedoms they had lost, this reminder must have been no small source of anguish for those interred here.
There are a number of preservation and restoration efforts underway on the island … about half of which is not open to the public at the present time (which, quite naturally are parts of the island I’d most life to photograph. 🙂 ) This is a very unique place with a long, and at times very dark, but uniquely American, history.
These are just a few of the shots from this trip, if you’d like to see more, check out the Alcatraz set on my Flickr page, as more will be added to the collection over time.
All of these photos were shot with a Nikon D90 using 28mm AF-S, 50mm f1.8 AF-D, or 24-120mm f3.5-5.6 AF-D Nikon Lenses. Most exteriors were shot at ISO 200-500, while some of the interiors were shot between 1600-3200 ISO. The photos were shot in camera raw and processed using Adobe Lightroom 2.