For me a big attraction of street photography is the opportunity to get out, explore new places, interact with new people. All of that has been tough since Covid invaded the world. Driven to distraction by cabin fever, I’ve been searching out interesting but socially distant places to visit. Recently I decided to visually explore key 2020 themes of isolation, confinement, loss, and social control on Alcatraz. Not only would the excursion be a chance to get out of the house, but the mood seemed perfect for gear I’ve been wanting to use: a Leica M10 Monochrom paired with the reissued vintage f/5.6 Summaron 28mm lens. I expected the high-contrast black and white results to have a noir look that echoed the island’s somber history.
In normal times, Alcatraz is San Francisco’s top tourist destination, attracting several thousand people per day.
But since Covid, visits to the island are far more limited. The upside is that for once, you can travel to Alcatraz on a whim; no need to reserve a spot weeks in advance. In a typical visit, most folks make a beeline for the infamous cellblock. No question, this is the most fascinating part, but it and almost all the other indoor spaces are closed due to Covid. As I’ve visited Alcatraz a few times, I welcomed a reason to wander through the island’s outdoor features, which I’d breezed past on earlier trips. I also challenged myself to rethink what “street photography” means to me. Is it the gear you use? An urban environment? Are people a must in every shot? Do you need to get close (not easy these days)? In the end I decided to practice different ways of capturing people in context without violating their personal space to the point that they’d be uncomfortable in today’s atmosphere of heightened concern about close proximity.
Although passengers on the Alcatraz ferry are exhorted to remain six feet apart, there are opportunities to shoot fellow passengers, cityscapes, world-famous bridges, seabirds, and various seagoing vessels before you even set foot on the island. The front of the boat is alluring, but signs warn of the “wet zone.” I avoided the prow but still ended up with some salt water splashed on my lens!
With this photo I wanted to tell a story of scale, geography, contrasts, and the sense of freedom conveyed by the sailboat. Without the people, though, the picture would be less interesting. You can stretch the definition of street photography quite a bit – as many have done successfully – but I feel that a clear indication of human presence is non-negotiable. For me, street photography is a window into our shared humanity, an inclusive way of breaking through the existential shell and forging connections with the rest of the world. Without the human element, a street photo – excellent though it may be – is challenged to achieve that goal.
It’s been almost 60 years since men were imprisoned on Alcatraz, but even today, with the island managed by the National Park Service, there’s a strong sense of confinement, limits, and control conveyed by the island’s many chain link fences. Happily for photographers, the fences, shadows, lines, and diagonals provide interesting compositional opportunities. Before my next visit I will seek inspiration from Lee Friedlander’s Chain Link (2017), where each of the book’s 97 images depict the namesake material.
The recreation yard was a photographic conundrum: how to convey the desolation and sense of lost energy without simply making a picture of emptiness. I got lucky when a visitor scooted out the door and I was able to catch just the barest suggestion of human presence. It’s fascinating how our minds are wired to recognize our own species. Although the man’s crooked arm occupies only a few pixels, people I showed the picture to immediately latched onto this detail.
The area around the cellblock’s front gate has eye-level windows that look into some former offices. Although the cellblock is closed to visitors until Covid abates, when the light is right the windows are a fun chance to play with reflections that warp time and space. You can even see San Francisco’s skyline across the Bay!
There’s an exception to the Covid-related closure of buildings on Alcatraz: the New Industries Building, former site of the prison laundry and some light manufacturing, remains open for special exhibitions. When I was there, the exhibit was about the 1969-71 Native American occupation. During normal times when the cellblock is open, this building is often closed, so it was a treat to go inside. I was drawn to the picture-making opportunities created by an interior wall of mostly shot-out windows, through which you can glimpse bits and pieces of people pondering the exhibit. Another novel way to photograph people at a safe distance!
The New Industries Building also has a long wall of divided windows facing west. In the late afternoon, the sun shines almost directly in, creating strong shadows full of photographic potential. In the top image of this article, I was, in reality, standing with my back to the sun holding the camera to my eye, but in the shadow puppet theatre that played on the concrete floor you seem to see the ghost of one of Alcatraz’s long-ago inmates.
Like the outbound trip, the return ferry ride back to San Francisco offers more familiar street photography opportunities. I was drawn to a group of construction workers at the end of their shift. They made a nice tableau, backlit through the boat’s windows. Alcatraz is a unique place, more a tourist destination than a typical street photography venue. But strange times call for new approaches, and in the end I enjoyed a fairly socially distant day of shooting and was pleased with some of the photographs I came home with.