What Gets You Through the Winter


It was cold today, which officially makes the winter redundant. The Northeast has been brutal this year, with wind chills in to the negative degrees. I haven’t been as active as I would have liked in the last two months, due to one thing or another, but somehow when I do manage to find a good sign to shoot, I manage to choose the absolute coldest of cold days. Earlier on in January, I got shots of the Kwik Shoppe in Shoemakersville. Beautiful sunshine, wind chills below freezing. The needle didn’t hit double digits (that’s Farenheit, metric system fans) until I got back home. It was so cold during this shoot, I was trying, with varying success, to hit the shutter button on my K-5 with my heavy winter gloves.

Kwik Shoppe, Shoemakersville, PAOh, was this a cold, cold day…

But I couldn’t argue with the results. There’s something about the winter sun that is noticeable in photographs. A harshness, hyper-contrast. Yesterday was such a day. Not a cloud in the sky, brutal sun, and the freezing point of the extremity of a female occultist’s mammary gland.

Check the picture below. I was just starting to take shots of signs in the summer of 2010 when I came across Schmoyer’s Dry Cleaners in the Mountainville area of Allentown. The building, I could tell, was closed, and in my mind I had to get a shot of it before the sign came down for good.

Schmoyer's Dry Cleaners, Allentown, PA

Nearly four years later and the sign still stands, despite the fact that the Dry Cleaners is all boarded up. I passed by a few days ago and noticed the tree that is in the above picture was no longer there. I figured it would be a good opportunity to get the other side of the sign, which is just as rusty and full of lovely neon bullet holes. And I also wanted to see what difference the winter sun made.

Of course, no one wants to go out into the cold, but I love taking shots that you don’t normally get. Different weather conditions, lighting scenarios, you name it. And I wanted to see if I could get the other side of Schmoyer’s, with the sun on it.

I headed down the hill on PA 145 and from a distance I could see it was going to be a challenge. There was still part of a tree obscuring that side, and the early afternoon sun was projecting shadows of that tree on to the sign. I parked and took a few shots, but I could tell this wasn’t going to be the result I wanted.

Schmoyer's Dry Cleaning, Allentown, PA front side

So, not wanting to admit defeat, I stepped through the snow to the other side. The winter sun was blasting away in vain against the cold, right behind the tree, imposing itself into my shot. I made the best of it and worked with it and not against it. I popped the flash on to augment the light on the face of the sign, and the results here were much better:

Schmoyer's Dry Cleaners, Allentown, PA back side

And for good measure, I tried it out in black and white, getting the bloom of the sun:

Schmoyer's in black and white

There’s a part of me that wants to hole up in the winter, but I see these things and I think, why? There’s so much that can be done out there, even though it’s difficult, even though the winds blow, even though the roads are still unplowed (you feeling me, Allentown?). And although the nasty bite of winter does its worst, it can’t stop the summer from coming. In the midst of all this, we press on. The longer we press on, the greater the chance that we capture something beautiful.

The Learning

A friend of mine once said that he liked the fall because it reminded him of going back to high school. I thought about that for days after, and even now I still remember it. It serves as a reminder to me that I don’t ever want to be so caught up in the past that I wander through my present and future.

I understand the feeling he felt, though. Change is difficult, even when we want it. As human beings, we are so geared toward holding on to what we have that it is hard to let go of something, even when it’s already gone. Some have worse trouble than others and are selfish in all things; some have the ability to let go in certain areas and free themselves.

One of the things I love about photography is that it is always the present. But the irony, of course, is that once this moment of the present is captured, immediately it melts into the past. This is why I like to take pictures of the same thing several times: the present changes, making the subject darker, lighter, unbelievably cheerful or dreary without hope. And some things are just varying degrees of one or the other.

One location seems to be just the dark and the dreary. Three times I’ve gotten shots at the Lehigh Structural Steel in Allentown; the first, on the hottest day of the year in 2009:

Lehigh Structural Steel, Allentown, PA

The second shot was taken on a bright, clear day last year; and the third, taken today, in the deep cold of the winter. The sign faces north, so the sun is almost always behind it. It sits parallel to the Union Street bridge over the Lehigh River, which was where I took the second shot:

Lehigh Steel, from the BridgeIt turned out almost cheery and somewhat interesting, but I was never terrifically happy with it. The first set I always kind of liked, too, but I was just learning my camera and quite frankly the pictures were very grainy. Today, since I was in the area, and since it was cloudy, I decided to try again.

First problem: the angles are odd. Lehigh Structural Steel is located in an odd sub-basement below the bridge, jam-packed with houses and one-way streets that pass for two-way streets. The first shot I took from an odd angle, from the lot next to the old plant. The bridge is the most direct shot, but in the best of days it’s not a great walk.

Under the bridge is an extension of Tilghman Street, and an odd collection of houses sit there, directly underneath the Union Street bridge. I saw a spot to park at the end of the street, near the railroad tracks, and fit my car in it. From here, it was a short walk along the tracks to the shot I wanted. I decided to get the tracks involved, as well:

Wide shot of Lehigh Structural Steel, Allentown, PALehigh Structural Steel, Allentown, PA

And this seems to have captured its present. The way it should look, warts and all. The other shots have their merit, and they certainly captured the present as of that moment, but these shots seem to capture the spirit of the area more than anything.

This is what I’m learning, and what I’m continuing to learn: the past never gets better and never gets worse. Only the present and the future change, and they always do, so the best thing I can to do is try to change these things rather than something that might have happened in my past. It’s a hard lesson, and one that I continue to learn.