fdr park :: pbr, skaters and me


The smell of weed was overwhelming. . .

Being a successful photographer, at times, takes more than the know how and application of proper composition, by-the-book lighting, or creating an aesthetically pleasing photograph. Sometimes, getting your camera where others won't will separate the men from the boys (or women from the girls for those still hung up on being PC).

Today, I will share with you my most recent journey to the unknown.

The morning was just perfect. Philadelphia's temperature at that moment was 55 degrees. I looked outside and saw the streets packed with visitors. Visitors? Ah, yes, living in Rittenhouse Square for ten years builds you the skill of recognizing the neighbors and the tourists. Yes, if you feel like people are noticing you when you visit other cities, they probably are. The guy with a fanny pack, polo shirt, khaki shorts, white sneakers, galloping along 18th Street, while licking a vanilla ice cream cone, um, yeah, that guy is definitely a tourist. Where was I? Right. Looking outside.

Seeing the marvelous weather had changed my previous plans. The original plan was to head down to The Reading Terminal, to shoot an assignment I've been working on. With the first truly nice day of 2013, I anticipated the market to be an absolute mob scene. As I was the tourists on my block, I also knew they'd be swarming around like worker bees at The Reading Terminal. No worries. I have some time until I find a crappy day, a day where others refrain from going out, to get the shots I'm aiming for. When others hide inside, I venture out, with my gear of course.

My backup plan? Franklin Delano Roosevelt park, FDR park, or as called in South Philly lingo, "The Lakes." FDR park lies deep in South Philly, way down Broad Street, right around the sports complex. FDR park consists of 348 acres of land, including lakes, golf courses and at the very ass end, the pit of the park, lies the skate park. As the park has it's pretty features, the skate park is surely its nasty incurable rash. IT'S PERFECT.

For those venturing away from their busy, crowded urban lives, FDR park can help some find solace. For those who have never been and find themselves lost on the path to peace, the skate park is not where they may want to end up. The park is a gigantic cement playground for hipsters, riddled with graffiti and broken glass, half-pipes and the dome and many other uniquely named structures that lie directly under I-95.

I had been wanting to work with some skaters there for some time. As the temperature held steady that day, I decided it was time to head down and get to work.

I knew, in advance, from time spent scouting the location, that lighting would be a bit tricky. Being shaded by the I-95 overpass can help block the harsh sunlight but also lends to creating deep shadow pockets in random areas due to the oddly shaped concrete structures. 


Packing gear, I went with bringing the entire Tenba bag with me, loaded with my workhorse Nikon D4, the Nikkor 50 1.4G, the Nikkor 85 1.8G and the Nikkor 24-70 2.8G ED. Along with those essentials, I loaded up three strobes, four Pocketwizard Plus ii transceivers, lots of batteries and some other miscellaneous wiring, gaf tape, etc. 

I brought with that set, only two light stands as I anticipated that using even one in that environment could prove difficult to set up. Two would be a dream come true. I wasn't worried about gear magically walking away but I was concerned about placement lighting scenarios. Simplicity would be the name of the game. Less is more. 

I loaded up the Xterra and hit the road. First stop was to a local bodega, one that I frequent often. There I loaded up with a large black, a big Gatorade and 20 AA's that I surely overpaid for. I could've easily waited to buy the batteries at a cheaper spot but I was way to anxious to get to work.

In about twenty minutes, I was on the grounds of the park. Driving the long, windy road towards the venue felt like an eternity. Not sure what the speed limit was but it couldn't have been more than fifteen miles per hour. I think the joggers were passing me. 

My stomach turned with nerves as I hoped there were at least a few decent skaters to work with. I recall my last trip there and saw only one lonely skater in the entire park. Sad. I prayed this day would be different. 

About 200 yards out, I noticed something, something I wasn't expecting. I couldn't have been sure but this "event" surely wasn't organized or funded by the city. No sir, this was straight up thugs, gathering in masses. 

Lined under the interstate were hundreds and hundreds of tricked out rides. I immediately sensed the lack of organization. No rules here. It was glorious. Many would see these people as hoodlums, I saw them as a mass gathering of people, not your typical people, showing off their creativity. How and what they created with their imports. Those cars aren't my cup of tea but seeing them in such quantity and up close, gave me a better understanding for the work that is put into them. Thugs? Maybe, but creatives nonetheless. I felt at ease. 

By now, due to the mobs of people, I was slowed to about five miles per hour. Passing the skate grounds, to my right, I noticed tons of skaters, talented ones at that, grinding away, rail after rail, my heart began to pump. 

Last time at these grounds, I parked my truck right up against their concrete playground. On this day, I found parking about a hundred yards past the action. The day was quite the contrast from the last visit. 

Before exiting the vehicle, I had to decide on which gear to carry along. I immediately decided that strobes were out of the question. Not only would placement be a challenge but now I have the risk, exponentially grown for that matter, for gear to be broken. There's no real safe place to set up a light stand, let alone flat ground. Do the math: lots and lots of people, wandering aimlessly past black, camouflaged lighting equipment. Hmmmm. I sensed disaster. I decided the strobes would be best used for a less chaotic day at the park. I couldn't see a speedlight lasting more than ten minutes in this environment. No worries. I will strobe the hell out of the place next visit. 

I leave everything behind except for the D4 and the 24-70. Bare bones people. Sometimes that's how you have to roll, raw, minimalist. The art is when to know when to strip down to bare basics. I knew, in this environment, that it would be much easier to work with two things, me and my camera. 

I gulped down lots of Gatorade before hitting the pavement, to hydrate properly. The rest I transferred to a smaller water bottle and threw in my back pocket. I nervously approached the activity.

The smell of weed was overwhelming. 

This sort of reassured me that this event was not sanctioned by the city. All the reason it would be more interesting to shoot.

Mixed with the ginormous cloud of marijuana was the odor of burnt rubber. While each shows off their tricked out rides, the other proves their status by seeing who can pull off the best "burn out." A burn out is when the vehicle is held in place by emergency brake, regular brakes or human beings, as I noticed, and the driver nails the gas, spinning the tires and bringing up black lines and enormous clouds of smoke. The loudest, most obnoxious, is usually the unofficial winner. 

Making my way through the clouds of smoke, I notice the masses sharing Coronas and PBR tall boys. Pabst Blue Ribbon has been the trendy hipster beer for some time now. I thought the trend would have died out but on this day I saw the mighty PBR cans still holding their ground. Well done marketing, PBR, well done. Bravo. I digress.

As I trampled upon broken glass, broken ceramic, toilets, if I had to guess, I arrived at the skate grounds. The cultural diversity was phenomenal! I've found heaven and never want to leave. Ok, this version of heaven may be another's hell but beauty is surely in the eye of the beholder. 

The entire scene felt a bit "Mad-Max." Everyone, regardless of what they were wearing, all had this seeming layer of dust, on their bodies. Dust from the air under the interstate? Dirt from skating? Whatever the reason, it added to the ambiance and made me smile. 

I first made my way over the to multiple bowl like structure. There was some vantage points that I felt would make for interest. Going back to what I said earlier, lighting would be a bit tricky. The skaters were banging out tricks, one after another, leaving me little time to fuss with exposure. Stop the press, I went ALMOST fully manual. Yep, call me crazy, I wasn't shooting full manual. Call the photo police. I know. Everything I preach, right out the window, right? Well, not really. 

I work in full manual mode 99.9999% of the time. 

Much of the shooting I do is with strobes or an environment where the ambient is more controlled and if not then I have time to tweak exposure, frame by frame. 

In this case, the pace is fast. Now that doesn't mean the shots should be rushed. Each frame should still be thought out and composed. BUT, the clock is moving fast and I don't want to use a single second losing a shot due to an ambient change, adjust, recompose and shoot again. Instead, I manually worked with two settings that really mattered on this day; shutter and aperture. I decided to leave the ISO up to the brains of the camera, bottoming out at a minimum of ISO 100 and flooding the sensor with love at a maximum of ISO 12,800. 

Now, all I have to worry about is freezing motion with fast shutters and working the DOF to my liking. 

After spending some time, and a few hundred frames, at this location, I moved to the half-pipes. I just want to say, the talent and skill that I was shooting this day, was nothing less than amazing. In my teen days, I spent some years on a skateboard, mastering nothing more than an ollie and a rail slide. I dreamed of a half-pipe but in those days skating hadn't taken off just yet. Finding and skating a half-pipe were a rare commodity. Therefore, I never had the opportunity to attempt such extreme moves. Seeing them up close (inches from my face) and personal, gave me an enormous appreciation for what these people do, mentally and physically. 

My ass wouldn't make it from one side to the other. Just sayin.' 

I spent some good time with the fellas on the half-pipe. I thanked them for their time and moved to higher grounds. 

I had to hike the glass riddled grounds, upwards, to make it to the high points of the concrete structures. Once above, I noticed another world of people. Perched above everyone else as if hipster gods. They had chairs, coolers of beer, food, weed, men had their women and women men. I felt, at first, not having a skateboard in hand, would have been a ticket back down to lower grounds but to my surprise, everyone was cool. I found my spot, staying out of the way but getting in the way, at the same time (a photographer's secret weapon). I got comfy, sipped some Gatorade, that was quickly getting warm, in my back pocket, and began to fire away. 

I spent a couple hours, in total, going back and forth, to various park locations, looking for interesting people and awesome tricks. 

Walking back to my car, I couldn't help but be drawn towards the intense smell of burning rubber. I had to catch a few frames of these guys and their burn outs. It was surely a sight to be had. 



In the end, I shot close to 1000 RAW files. Not a bad day's work. 

Once back in my vehicle, hearing the sounds of screeching tires fading away, I became torn with emotions. 

First, I was super pumped and appreciative to have had spent my day upon the chaotic sea of hipsters, skaters and thugs. 

Second, worried. Did I get any decent frames? 

Third, saddened. I didn't want to leave.

Finally, elated. I can't wait to go back for a second shoot. 

Until next time...

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