Sunday, November 4, 2012

WILD goose chase :: ARGO NUNYA

Today was Philadelphia's annual "Toys for Tots" motorcycle run. A friend of mine, also an A.B.A.T.E. member,  had asked if I'd like to show up and do some photos of the event. Nothing formal, no contracts. The offer was that if I decided to shoot the event and got some nice shots, I'd donate them to the organization. If I couldn't make the event, no loss. Being that there is a wide variety of people who attend this event each year, I thought to myself that it would be a good opportunity to get over there and make some interesting photographs.

So, why the hell are you seeing a photograph of a random abandoned factory? My friends, the story is about to unfold.

Without further ado, today's wild goose chase.

more after the jump...

What Is Toys For Tots?

The Toys for Tots motorcycle run has been going on for the last couple of decades in Philadelphia and other cities nationwide. The abridged Philly version is that about one hundred thousand or more bikers line up, usually on Columbus blvd. From there they each carry a toy to be donated to children in need. For many years the end point has been C.H.O.P. (Children's Hospital of Philadelphia). There are a few different rumors flying around as to why C.H.O.P. ceased to hold the event. I could only speculate. Needless to say, the event now ends up at various locations, basically any venue looking for some increase in business or some positive publicity.

As for the name, Toys for Tots, I think the A.B.A.T.E. organization has run into some copyright infringement with the U.S.M.C., who also uses the Toys for Tots title. These days the name has been changed the A.B.A.T.E Toy Run but veterans still use the old name.

Let The Games Begin

The weekend has been taxing already. It began yesterday morning, before dawn, when I had to meet with a colleague in northern New Jersey. Finishing up our meeting around noon, I had to drive from the top of the Garden State, down to the Delaware County section of Pennsylvania. There, I had to meet Edward Campbell. Mr. Campbell is a screenwriter, more than that, he is writing the screenplay for a short film that I have decided to produce and direct. Creating the short will not be a transition from the still world, but rather a evolution. In today's market of photography, clients look for shooters that have honed skills in both disciplines, stills and film. Adding some reel to my portfolio is just a smart move. Anyway, Ed and myself were out to do some location scouting. My eyes were getting heavy on that Saturday afternoon, as I had already spent over six hours behind the wheel. Focus was becoming difficult but necessary at the same time. After a few hours of scouting, Ed and I parted ways, I to my home and Ed to, well, wherever it is he was going.

Once home, I just about collapsed on the couch, in front of the TV. I didn't want to stay up too late as I was preparing for Sunday's bike shoot.

Sunday had arrived faster than I could have imagined. The morning consisted of running some errands and prepping an alternate gear bag for the shoot. My large Tenba bag would be too cumbersome to lug around town as I may have been hitting a couple different spots once shooting commenced. Instead I loaded up my vintage Incorruptible messenger bag. The bag is not camera specific but when I want to pack light, it works nicely. Along with its ease of carrying, the nondescript bag doesn't call attention to itself by screaming, "hey, there's uber expensive photo equipment in this bag!". For the event I packed super light. I loaded the nikon D4 with the 24-70 2.8 attached. The 24-70 is quite versatile for the type of portrait work that I like to do. It's a heavy chunk of glass but would give me all the lengths I would need to get some biker shots. I also packed in a Vivitar 285HV and a couple of Pocketwizards, in case I had the opportunity to get some creatively lit shots. I always pack a minimum of one strobe for that specific reason. All batteries were fully juiced.

Once I tied up my Chucks, grabbed my coat and bag, I was about to hit the street when a text from my friend came in. Turned out the initial toy drop off location, McFadden's, at 3rd and Spring Garden, had been changed to the Electric Factory, at 7th and Callowhill. No big deal. I acknowledged the text and headed out the door.

I was in need of some coffee, in a bad way. Luckily, a new Starbucks had recently opened at 18th and Spruce, literally about 100 feet from my front door. That new location makes me so happy. I grabbed a bottle of Ethos water and a grande blonde roast (more caffeine than dark roasts), paid and tipped the barista and headed outside to hail down a cab.

The cab driver was awkwardly quiet. The most I got out of him was, "where are you going?," not a hello, no a how's your day, noting. Most Philly cabbies, and I've rode in thousands, at least say something, even if their English is beyond understanding, at least it's something.

Approaching Callowhill street, traffic was horrible. I decided it would be faster to walk to the Electric Factory from the current location, than it would be to sit and wait for cars to begin moving. Walking across 7th street, between the gridlocked cars, I saw a woman driving a Volvo rear end another woman driving a Land Rover. Odd, two days in a row I had witnessed car accidents. Yesterday I watched another woman just about rip the entire side off of a parked Durango. Still can't figure out how that one happened. Anyway, I digress and I'm by no means trying to make any statements about female drivers. I swear.

Approaching the Electric Factory I receive another text from my friend. It said the toy drop off is in the courtyard behind Schimdt's Beer and Ale house. I wasn't familiar with this spot but thought to myself that it had to be very close to the Electric Factory. Closing in on the Electric Factory, I could hear the roar of choppers. This courtyard was definitely nearby.


This is where things began to get interesting. As I neared the sounds of the choppers I searched the map on my iPhone, making sure that Schmidt's was indeed close to the Electric Factory. No searches matched my query. I tried calling my friend but no answer. I had a feeling he wouldn't answer since being surrounded by 100,000 motorcycles could easily drown out the loudest ring tones. I continued onto the sounds of the bikes. Rounding the corner I spotted some motorcycles.

I was right on top of a lot, adjacent to the Electric Factory, which was filled with about 200 bikers. Problem was, this wasn't the right location. Upon closer inspection I saw that these hundreds of bikers were not your mid-life-crisis-need-a-chopper-to-look-cool-when-out-of-the-office type of bikers. No sir, they were the infamous Pagan motorcycle club.

If you aren't familiar with the Pagans,  you are probably better off. The Pagans are one of the most vicious outlaw biker gangs in the country. Their hometown is Philly. They wear their "colors" with pride, accompanied by a "1%" patch, symbolizing that 99% of motorcycle clubs are upstanding law abiding citizens, were as the other 1% are the outlaws, the badasses.

Living in Philadelphia, I've seen my share of Pagans. Typically, I've seen maybe 20 or thirty of the outlaw club in various streets around town. On this day, the view actually took my breath away. Seeing the sheer number of this infamous gang, all together, was mesmerizing. I immediately wanted to pull out my camera and start shooting them but my better judgement, and recollection of the countless horror stories I've read about them, told me not to open my bag. Outlaws such as the Pagans aren't really fond of having their photos taken, especially by an outsider such as myself.

Staring in awe at the sea of Pagans finishing up bottles of Corona and swigging large amounts of hard liquor, I realized they were about to leave this location as they, in unison, mounted their choppers and let their engines roar. The sound sent chills up my spine as my bones vibrated from the pure power.

I was under the assumption that the outlaws were either heading to one of their local hangouts or they were making their way to Schmidt's, the venue where the toys were to be dropped. Yes, even though the Pagans are known for murdering someone who may sneeze the wrong way, they still participate in the annual toy run. Not sure why they participate but I would think it is to show the thousands of others in attendance that the PMC (Pagan Motorcycle Club), all "flying colors," are a significant presence in the city and not to be fucked with.

Still trying to figure out where the toy drop off would be, I decided (bravely or stupidly, I still don't know) to approach the Pagans and see if I could get some info as to where the new drop off was happening. Part of me even wondered if I could get some cool shots of the outlaws. The idea was far fetched but you never know unless you try and try very very delicately and with as much caution as you've ever had in your life. Fact of the matter is, the police rarely interfere with the Pagans due to their large numbers and vicious actions.

I decided to approach the lions den.

I, as cool as I could, approached the fenced in lot that the gang occupied. My heart began to beat a little faster. A few feet in front of me was one of the Pagans at the gated entrance. I was trying to think of how to approach him with looking threatening in any way. The guy sported a beard hanging below his chest, his vest covered in the clubs patches. I immediately noticed everyone's 1% patches, one on the breast of the vest, the other beside the large Pagan logo patch on back. The 1% patch is diamond shaped, and of various colors, typically red or white, from what I noticed. I made eye contact with the closest gang member. Following the eye contact that I'd hoped for, I nodded my head up in the air as to nonverbally call to his attention. He looked perplexed as me, all alone, walked towards the sea of evil. Closing in on him, he immediately raised his hand towards me, in a stopping way, and said "NO" while shaking his head in the same negative motion. I raised my hand, letting him know that I understand.

Access denied and I wasn't even holding a camera. Shit.

At this point he backed his bike out into the middle of 7th street, right in front of the Electric Factory. Traffic on this day was at a peak and the 1% did not hesitate to bring everything to a halt. Had anyone else tried to pull such a stunt and the angry Philly drivers would honk, curse, yell and most likely drive right past such an attempted road block. But, as many are aware who the Pagans are, the cars sat quietly, with considerable distance as he motioned for the other outlaws to exit and ride away. The sight was magnificent! I couldn't bring myself to leave the area until I saw each and every Pagan head up 7th street. The guy who was controlling traffic, the one I approached, looked a me a few times, probably thinking I was a bit crazy for hanging around after he made it clear that outsiders are not welcome. I did stand back a bit, doing by best not to show any disrespect.

Back To Reality

After the outlaw presence had dissipated, I was back to not knowing where the toy drop was happening. Strange that the venue was changing since this event used to be meticulously organized. I tried my buddy a couple more times with no answer. I then called another biker friend to see if he knew where things were happening. He explained that he only knew that there were a few different bike runs going on in the city and he wasn't sure where the toys were ending up.

I decided to make my way back towards my place. Not long after, I received a call from my initial contact. I asked where he was and his first response was "I don't know". Not a promising answer by any means. While still on the phone, he asked others nearby of their exact location. Once known, he shared the info with me. He told me not to worry about coming by at that point and apologized for the confusion. I explained to him that I would still give it a shot and try to make it to the actual spot.

After hanging up, I did a check on my cash situation. Dinero was low and many city cabbies won't accept anything but cash, illegal but true. I decided it was in my best interest to keep walking towards my place to shorten any distance I would have to ride in a cab, making the fare a bit friendlier.

The Photograph

Before hailing down a cab at Vine street, I made a stop by an abandoned factory that lies between 8th and 9th, just off of Callowhill. I see this factory on a daily basis and always thought it could make for an eerie photo. The entire structure is oxidizing, giving it wonderful patches of rotting rust colored metal. The colorful graffiti only helps to accent the age and condition of the building. I decided to grab a few quick shots.

I moved around the Callowhill side of the structure, trying to find an interesting composition. Camera was in full manual mode as usual. White balance set to a Kelvin around 5000 degrees, close to daylight balance. I wanted a nice fast shutter with a clean image so I shot wide open at f/2.8 with an ISO of 100 and a shutter of 1/640. That was about 3/4 of a stop under the proper exposure. Dropping below a bit allowed me to balance the bright sky with the dark building. Had I gone with what the meter was giving me at +/-0 exposure composition, the sky would have blown out.

Once getting back to my digs, I jumped on the Apple to work the image as I've wanted to shoot the dilapidated building for a long time.

First thoughts were to go with a bit of HDR, really bringing out the detail and popping the colors. Over the years I've gotten sick of the use and abuse of HDR and have since given up on the style. I thought this structure would look awesome with a touch of the technique. Once the image processor gave me the first HDR, I immediately trashed it and started my edit from scratch. Yep, still can't stand the HDR.

My main concern was getting the colors to pop but nothing was catching my eye with my ACR editing. I worked the saturation, curves, luminance, everything. Nothing was making me super happy.

As my day consisted of strange happenings and going against the norm, I decided to do the same with this photo edit.

I took the photo over to Photoshop and opened the Nik Silver Efex Pro plugin suite. In there I added a Holga black and white filter, while adjusting the contrast and structure sliders. The result was just as I had hoped, the creepy old building emphasized even further by a dark and ominous black and white edit. I even added some noise and vignette to enhance this dark feeling.

That's about it. The weekend was busy and the happenings strange. It's amazing where that camera has led me, places I never think to find myself. Ok, today it took me somewhere a bit dangerous but rememberable nonetheless.

Damn, wish I had some shots of those Pagans, that would have rocked!

Until next time...