BRATTLEBORO >> Philip Calabria teaches photography at Northfield Mount Hermon School in Gill, Mass. He was a studio photographer, working in black and white, when he got an opportunity to photograph the dilapidated buildings on the South Island at Ellis Island, he recalled in a recent interview. The Brattleboro Museum and Art Center is showing a group of the photos in an exhibit called "Stilled Passages: Photographs of Un-Restored Ellis Island."
"I have a very close friend who is an architectural conservator in New York City," he explained. "In December of 2009 he suggested that I come down and look at South Island, which is the unrestored section of Ellis. He thought that the environment and the light might be interesting to me."
The friend, who had worked with the National Park Service, got permission to tour the buildings with Calabria.
"I did go down, and was completely blown away by what I saw," Calabria remembered. "I had been working in eight-by-ten, large-format black and white photography. My entry into this space told me that wasn't going to work. Besides the bulk of the equipment, the place just screamed color."
He decided to apply for permission to photograph the unrestored buildings on the south side of the island. The National Park Service is responsible for them as well as the Ellis Island Immigration Museum; all are part of the Statue of Liberty National Monument.
First Calabria took a preliminary set of photos to present to the National Park Service.
"I walked around the buildings with a point-and- shoot camera and did photos to see what would be possible," he said. "I made a formal application on official NPS documentation, and I proposed that I would work four days on the island and eight days off for a period of almost six months, using digital capture, but that I would have to be unaccompanied. "
He wasn't sure the Park Service would approve his plan, as the older buildings had been deteriorating over the years.
"This place is a relic," Calabria said. "It has been left abandoned since 1952, and it has suffered some wear and tear from the elements, which has lent beauty to the place, but at the same time there is all sorts of yellow tape all over the place and some stairways that don't exist any more.
"Generally any time anyone goes over to South Island they are with a National Park Service guide, or a National Park Service policeman," he continued. "Somehow I impressed them with my experience and my work in the trades — I worked in construction for five years — and I took a tour with the deputy superintendent and the National Park Service project manager. We took a walking tour and that sealed the deal."
After passing a security check, Calabria received a pass to work alone in the old buildings.
"I had a pass to get on the 6:30 a.m. staff boat out to Ellis, and then I'd just walk over and start to work," he recalled. "I carried my lunch and worked from 7:15 on, and caught the 5:30 or 6:30 staff boat back. After four days of that, I would come back to Massachusetts and process what I saw, and then I would get back on the train, go down to Manhattan, and then start the process over again."
Remarkably, in almost all of the photos Calabria was able to use natural light to capture the age and wear of the buildings' interiors in sharp color. He used a full-frame-format digital camera with a remote shutter release, which allowed exposures as long as three or four minutes in dim light.
"That was a decision on my part to keep the quality of that maritime light," he explained. "And I can't impress upon you how different it is — what the light in that environment provided. It's the key to the whole project. You must understand that most of the light is filtered into the interior of the buildings through an 18-by-18 louver, which is essentially to pass air through. In some places, where doors have been smashed down or windows have been broken, more light comes in."
He enjoyed the entire process of making the photos, including making all the prints.
"The process was incredibly engaging, whether I was there starting at 7:15, or on Halloween night at 7:30 photographing that scene looking across at the Verrazano Bridge," he said. "It was always vital — I was energized, but at the same time very calm. Once I figured out what I was doing, I really rocked and rolled."
While the photos are mute reminders of the people who once lived and worked on the island, Calabria said that he was not interested in Ellis Island as such.
"This might sound crass," he commented. "I was interested in what the structure had become, what the surfaces provided, what the magnificent light provided to me.
"The image of the blue panel is an infill panel that is protecting an interior window frame that someone painted blue. Over time what happened to that panel — its utilitarian purpose — had dissolved, but what was revealed to me was a completely different aesthetic result," he went on. "There's one of the staff washroom. It doesn't matter to me that those are sinks. What grabbed me forever was the composition and structure and the light."
In 2012, the museum on Ellis Island exhibited 66 of the final prints. Calabria said that when he showed the first prints to the National Park Service, he was slightly nervous, wondering what their reaction would be.
"'This doesn't look at all like Ellis,'" he recalled the deputy superintendent saying. "I held my breath, and without skipping a beat he said, 'And that's why they're so powerful.' That was the authentication of what I had done."
"Stilled Passages: Photographs of Un-Restored Ellis Island" will be at the Brattleboro Museum and Art Center until Aug. 29. For more information, visit www.brattleboromuseum.org.
Maggie B. Cassidy can be reached at email@example.com.