Behind the Picture: Stranger on the Port Townsend Ferry
Inspired by my colleague Amadou's recent articles on home printing, a few days ago I decided to take a long-overdue look through the pictures stored on my server, with the aim of picking out a few shots that might be worthy of display. Given that my home server holds almost a decades' worth of photographs, that was never going to be a quick or easy task.
As I cursed my younger self for shooting everything - and I mean EVERYTHING - in Raw+JPEG mode (one day Photoshop will finish building the thumbnails... one day...) I steeled myself and decided that I had to start somewhere, and that I may as well start at the beginning of the Alphabet, in the 'A' folder. Alongside an array of sub-folders with such teasingly vague names as 'AA', 'April', and the embarassingly-misnamed 'Art', my eye fell gratefully on one which I knew contained some pictures that were worth working on.
'America 2008' is home to more than 1000 pictures taken during the course of a 2-week vacation in the US which spanned the last presidential election. I spent one week in New York, and another, coincidentally, in and around Seattle.
This photograph was taken during the Seattle leg of my trip, shortly after sunset as I rode the ferry from Port Townsend to Coupeville. The sky was that luminous blue which characterises what photographers call the 'magic hour' but which in winter only lasts about 20 minutes or so. This is my favourite time for photography, and as I wondered around the almost-deserted upper deck of the ferry I was struck by the contrast between the warmly lit interior and the cold (both literal and figurative) of the sky.
This photograph was taken looking west, the direction in which the sky was at its brightest, only minutes before the blue faded finally to black. When I saw the single figure sitting in the window, I knew the scene had potential. Racing against nightfall I tried multiple exposures, framing the image vertically and horizontally, and in the process captured several different aspects of the man behind the window.
The version of the image that I ended up liking most is framed vertically. In it, the man stares into space, at something or someone that we cannot see. Behind him, the sky is beginning to fade, as a single red light blinks into the darkness on the distant shore. The sun has gone down, but he is looking east.
One of the magical things about photography, and something which separates it from more traditional artforms is that as a photographer, you don't always have ultimate control over the content of your images. I didn't know the man in this photograph, I didn't know where he was going, or why. I still don't know anything about him beyond the fact that one evening in November 2008 he was travelling alone from Port Townsend to Coupeville. I don't know whether he was happy that evening or sad, and his expression is ambiguous. His presence is purely coincidental, but without him this photograph would have been nothing more than a colour study.
As it is, this image has a lot of significance for me. It reminds me of a brief, historic moment in modern American history, and of a period of significant change in my own life. Some people think it is a study of loneliness, and that's fine, but I've never felt that the man in this image is lonely. He's just on a journey.
Barnaby Britton is Reviews Editor of dpreview.com. You can see a selection of his after-hours work at www.photoinsensitive.com.