By Mickey Freed
The pictures I took a couple of weeks back were from down
near the Delaware River where it starts to get industrial.
I ended up on the wrong street and found myself past the city
dump near the Connectiv power station and Dupont’s Edgemoor
plant. The sky was filled with dramatic clouds and it was
about 40 minutes before the sunset so shadows were long and
the towers from the power plant were lit up in golds and silvers.
They were beautiful, retro, futuristic and enormous. I captured
towers, transformers, weird insulators made for tens of thousands
of volts, power lines, symmetric beauty caught in the day’s
most perfect light. At least that’s how I saw it. I took them
all home put them into Photoshop, boosted some contrast here,
removed some red there, solarized, saturated, I came away
with several really great shots.
The very first pictures I took with an SLR twenty years ago
had the same theme. I was standing in an old Campbell’s Soup
chicken coup snapping away at the caved in roof and scenes
looking from the inside out through broken windows at rusting
trucks and backhoes. I guess I can only describe it as the
urge to find beauty in the trash and eyesores of man’s construction.
But, this weekend I had the flu. I could have stayed home
and sat on the couch watching bad science fiction movies but
I couldn’t. Why? I would be asked that later.
I don’t consider myself an artist but I like to think I
have an artistic capacity that could flourish if I payed more
attention to it. I always get kind of restless when my wife
is out of town and this weekend was no different. I tried
sitting on the couch reading but the cold medicine had given
me kind of a buzz and I was excited about the pictures I had
So, flu or no flu, today I wanted to continue on this project.
I decided to scout out some places by Naaman’s road since
I needed to be down there later at 5:00pm to pick up my standard
poodle from the groomer. Too bad she’s not part of this story,
she is a lot of fun. Anyway, about 3:30pm I’m driving into
Marcus Hook, Delaware, and I’m psyched. The sky that had been
flat and gray all day long had started to break up and the
sun was poking in and out flashing long shadows and brilliant
light on the pipes, towers, and other weird shit down in factory
land. Marcus Hook is very surreal. Every factory is stranger
than the next.
Being an engineer I have an appreciation for machined parts,
production lines, and such, but all the things that I deal
with at my job are on a small scale. Marcus Hook is the Big
Time. Everything is huge in a refinery or a steel plant. Even
everyday things like nuts and bolts can be almost a foot in
I couldn’t find anywhere to park near the steel mill but
Sunoco butted right up to a neighborhood so there was plenty
of on-street parking and even a sidewalk around the perimeter
of the plant. I parked the car and was off. I took probably
15 shots and about 10 of them looked like they would be really
good. This was going to be great. About three blocks into
the walk I came upon an American flag that was on top of some
sort of pipe structure. It was very tattered and backlit with
barbed wire in the foreground. It seemed like a very strong
image and I think I snapped about 5-7 shots of the flag whipping
in the wind.
Things started to get un-fun on the fourth block. The street
took a left and kind of dead-ended behind some houses and
a garage, I followed it but found no good photo-ops so I doubled
back to where I was before with the intention of heading toward
the steel mill next. A guy came out of the house that I was
just behind and said something to me. I couldn’t hear him
because of the wind so I just nodded and said hi, he looked
either crazy or drunk so I kept moving. I was starting to
get a bad vibe. I didn’t have to worry about the weird guy
for very long since I was about to have a new set of worries.
A police officer pulled his car along side of me and asked
me if I was taking pictures. I said I was but that I was certain
that I was on the sidewalk and not on private property. I
said I don’t think it’s against the law to take pictures.
He said it’s against the law to take pictures of Sun Oil,
and asked me for identification which I gave him. He called
my information into the radio and began to question me.
“What are you taking pictures of?”
“The pipes and towers and stuff, I’m not really sure what
it is,” I said.
“So why are you taking pictures of it then?”
Oh boy, that was a brainteaser; sometimes I wish I wasn’t
analytical. His question sent me into a long pause while I
considered it. First his question implied that if you don’t
know what something is then why would you take a picture of
it? For me this seems to be the reason why you would want
to take a picture. The more difficult part of his question
was Why. As I said, I’m not an artist but let’s just
suspend belief for a second and say that I am. Or better yet
let’s take an example of my friend Henry who is an artist.
If I were to ask Henry why he is buying Barbie dolls, crucifying
and dripping his own blood on them, I would guess his answer
would be because he has to. I don’t think he has much choice
in the matter. The same reason why he meticulously scratches
photos with a razor or erases money. He is driven to do so
and the “Why” may or may not come out at a later date. My
friend Karen has been building what she calls Dream Canoes.
They’re twelve feet long. She’s consumed by them and has been
for years, she wants to move on and paint and do some other
things but she isn’t done making Dream Canoes and so she keeps
making them. Eventually I answered that I was doing an art
project. “What program are you doing it for? What school are
you a student of?”
Great, this is going good, “Well I’m not really in a school.
I’m just doing a project with a friend on industrial forms
and structures and stuff, and like…uhmm, we were maybe going
to have like a show or something.” I was starting to get nervous.
Telling the truth to defend innocence seems so inadequate
compared to lying to defend guilt. Although I couldn’t think
of any lies at the moment that would make the officer go away.
Lying sucks anyway. So, as I stood there wondering how long
I was going to get the third degree from the local yokel I
looked down the street to the left and noticed two more squad
cars, then one coming from the right and then a State Police
car from the street straight ahead about 1 minute later. These
guys are serious about pictures.
Marcus Hook seems like a rough, blue-collar town and the
cops look like they are built to handle it. They all got out
of their cars and huddled around the 5’4” Caucasian, male
suspect. One guy looked like something off the Chippendale’s
lineup; strong jaw and biceps as big as my entire head. It
looked like they had given him the largest uniform they had
and the buttons were just barely holding him back. I notice
all this because he kept staring me down. Next, came the Emergency
Response Unit vehicle (Ford Excursion) driven by a woman representing
Sun Oil. It seemed like the cops were going to leave the decision
up to her as to how to proceed. This seemed odd being that
they were so sure of all the laws that I was breaking. I decided
when I saw the helicopter that I was going to play along and
be polite. The flu had knocked back my testosterone levels
significantly. By the way, I’m not sure the helicopter was
for me but I think it might have been. The other six cars
were, so why not a helicopter too.
The ERU lady began where the first cop began. Why am I taking
pictures of Sun Oil refinery?
“This is a very dangerous proposition you are undertaking
I had no idea what that meant.
“Since 9/11 you are not allowed to take pictures of refineries.
Show me your camera and these pictures.”
I began showing her and the cop the pictures I had taken
so far, trying to explain again why I like taking pictures
of industrial landscapes. She looked at me like I was insane.
After scanning through the pictures of Sun Oil she came to
last week's shots of Connectiv and Edgemoor.
“What are these of? These aren’t Sun.”
I explained that they were taken last week.
“What is this one?”
“It’s a transformer, that’s some sort of tower and…” I tried
“Why are you taking pictures of transformers at Connectiv?”
It seemed as though I was not communicating very effectively.
I had the idea that if I showed her some of my better shots
it would help clear things up once she saw how great the pictures
were. I frantically pushed the buttons on the back of the
camera to scan through the images to one of my better shots.
Unfortunately, the view on the back of the camera is about
1.25x1” so even if I had shown her an Ansel Adams landscape
I don’t think she would have been very impressed. I showed
her one of my favorites; six towers at Connectiv, three ablaze
in gold and the others in silver with brass like cigar band
things on them. Awesome.
“Here!”, I said excitedly. “Here is an example of what I’m
talking about, see the gold towers…”
In fact, this seemed to convince her that her initial assumptions
were right and that I was a nut. I don’t think anyone thought
I was a terrorist, probably too short for that, just a nut
case running around scaring people and threatening the peace
in an otherwise peaceful refinery.
Once we had gone through all the pictures in my camera a
couple of times, she decided that they could let me go if
I deleted all of the pictures related to Sun Oil. Knowing
that the Patriot Act had been written vaguely enough that
they probably could lock me up for months of questioning,
I decided to avoid any more excitement and started deleting.
She and the cop watched as I deleted each picture. I finally
came to the images of the American flag. “These too?” I asked.
“Delete all of the photos from Sun property,” was the reply.
I deleted the photos of the backlit tattered American flag
waving from high above a convoluted pipe structure that looked
like a Windows Screen Saver with barbed wire in the foreground.
I was escorted back to my car by a police car and the ERU
vehicle. A helicopter flew overhead as I drove out of Marcus
Hook on Rt. 13.