As a photographer, there are few genres of photography in which I haven’t dabbled. I’ve shot portraiture, products, and sports, and I even took a camera out at a wedding once. But if you ask what my favorite type of photography is, it is this: maritime industrial subjects at night. With a bit of luck, I now have access to a working shipyard seven minutes (by bike) from my apartment in Brooklyn!
Brooklyn Navy Yard
Known as “one of the most historically significant sites in America,” the Brooklyn Navy Yard, formerly New York Navy Yard, U.S. Naval Yard, and then the New York Naval Shipyard, has existed in one form or another since the turn of the century—the 19th Century. Founded in 1801 on Wallabout Basin, off the East River between the Manhattan and Williamsburg Bridges, the government purchased the land for $40,000 and the shipyard opened in 1806. It covers 219 acres. More than 80 warships and hundreds of smaller vessels first put to sea here. During World War II, more than 70,000 people worked at the yard, supporting the war effort.
Many famous ships slid down the rails of the yard. The first ship to sail from the yard was the USS Ohio, a 74-gun 2,757-ton warship, launched in 1820. The USS Monitor, the Union’s first ironclad, was built up the East River at Continental Ironworks, but she was completed, outfitted, armed, crewed, and commissioned at the Navy Yard, in 1862. The USS Maine of Havana Harbor notoriety was born in Brooklyn, in 1890. The flagship of President Theodore Roosevelt’s Great White Fleet, the USS Connecticut, was launched at the yard, in 1904. Bookending America’s involvement in World War II were two Brooklyn products, the USS Arizona that was tragically sunk in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, and the USS Missouri on whose decks the Japanese surrendered, in Tokyo Bay. During the war, the USS Iowa, first of its class of the largest American battleships, was launched in 1942 and was outfitted with 16" guns. And, after the war, one of America’s largest aircraft carriers, the USS Constellation, was launched in Brooklyn, in 1960.
50 years ago, on June 16, 1966, the New York Naval Shipyard closed after 165 years of service—sold to New York City for $22.4 million. Today, the yard is managed by the Brooklyn Navy Yard Development Corporation and is home to an ever-growing number of tenants, including GMD Shipyard, who uses the historic maritime infrastructure of the yard.
Dry Dock 1
One of GMD’s dry docks is Dry Dock 1. Most modern dry docks are made of concrete. Dry Dock 1 was built using granite blocks, sourced from New England quarries, and has 36' thick walls that rest on 6,500 32-foot-long oak piles that were driven 40' into the ground by the nation’s first steam-powered pile driver. An 1846 photograph of the dry dock under construction is one of the earliest photographs ever taken of the New York City landscape. At times resembling the steps of an ancient coliseum more than a place of ship repair and construction, the stones form an inverted arch that allows the dry dock to withstand uplifting forces from below. Construction took 10 years, due to the difficulties presented by the site. The foundation was set on quicksand and there were underground springs that flooded the construction. Known as one of the great feats of 19th-Century American engineering, the dry dock has been in continuous use since 1851 and is the third-oldest naval dry dock in the world.
Photographing the dry dock
Dry Dock 1 is an incredible place to photograph. The dry dock is fairly monochrome, especially under artificial light. The tan-colored granite blocks and yellow chain railings and stations seem to blend into each other. Our eyes have fairly poor color resolution at night because the rods take over from the cones to give us night vision. At night, to the digital camera, Dry Dock 1 seems to come alive with color. The dry dock’s caisson (gate) is not only the most important part of the dry dock—it keeps Wallabout Bay out—it is also the most photogenic part.
Shooting at night, a tripod was required. Usually, travel tripods are for, well, travel. A location less than 10 minutes from your front door does not really qualify as “travel.” However, when heading to a photo destination by bicycle and maneuvering in tight spaces, the Vanguard VEO265CB Carbon Fiber Tripod made perfect sense for this series of images. With the dry dock empty and the scene fairly static, you would naturally lean toward using a standard-sized, heavier tripod for the photographs. However, the Vanguard travel tripod came into its own because it allowed me to explore the large granite blocks of the dry dock without worrying about my load. Each block is the same height as three standard stair steps. Also, the crane’s control cab required climbing a caged ladder. Because of the compact size of the Vanguard, I was able to do this safely with the tripod slung over my shoulder—keeping both hands free for the climb. A full-sized tripod would likely have to be hoisted up to the cab by a line.
Dry Dock 1 is dirty (paint gets blasted off of ships here and the waters of the Hudson Bay estuary regularly flood the place), wet (it leaks a bit, but considering the fact that it is approaching its 200th birthday, that’s all good), and it could be better lit, but to walk down into a place where so many ships have come and gone over the years and stand at the very spot where one of the first photographs in New York City was ever taken, is a wonderful photographic experience.
Absolutely gorgeous pix. . .
THANK YOU, Francey!
I appreciate the kind words. Thanks for stopping by!
HI TODD, WONDERFUL PICTURES & ARTICLE. AS YOU MENTIONED HUMAN EYES CANT SEE IN THE DARK AS THE DIGITAL CAMERA. THANKS.
Thanks for reading and taking the time to comment, Doctor! I am glad you enjoyed the piece!
Great article! But I was hoping there would be more images with water in them. I love water!
Thanks, Flip! If someone makes a floating tripod, I promise to take more photos of water.
That would be e-e-e-e-e-e-citing, wouldn't it?
Love these photos. I was just wondering what camera and lense you used?
Thank you so much! I used a Fuji X-T1 camera with the following lenses: Fujinon 14mm f/2.8, 35mm f/1.4, 56mm f/1.2, and 90mm f/2 as well as the Leica/Schneider 28mm f/2.8 PC Super Angulon. That is what I had in my bag...but not sure if shots from all those lenses appear in the article here.
Thanks for reading!
thanks. Pleas where can find film for Polaroid N42 camera. have looked but cant find. Want to photo widlife in bachyard. sunny beech. Yes!
Hi Tim -
20-series films (replacement for type 80) were used by 20-series Rollfilm Polaroid cameras, which included the N42 (Polaroid Swinger). B&H cannot supply nor recommend any suppliers of this filma for this camera. We are not aware of any existing films that are compatible with this camra.
How did you manage to gain access to the property? You needed insurance if you were injured or killed there? I worked in some of the new tin buildings installing the fire alarm systems and always needed ID to get on the yard. I retired in 2008 and would love to get into the yard to shoot a ton of pics.
I have been hired by GMD Shipyard to photograph their facilities and projects. They gave me permission to use the photographs to illustrate this article.
Unfortunately, it is tough to get official permission to photograph around BNY, but I am working on it. There are so many areas of that facility that I would love to photograph, but, for now I am restricted to the shipyard's properties.
Check out John Bartelstone's website and book of incredible photographs of the BNY if you want to see some great imagery from inside the fence!
Very nice work. Industrial scenery at night has such a great potential - you've capture it squarely!
Thank you, George! Nighttime industrial landscapes was my MFA thesis project! It's my thing.
These images are exceptionally good!
Thank you very much, Bob! Thanks for dropping in!
Powerful night images. The dock looks like a temple or ampitheatre.
Thanks, John! It is very Roman amphitheater-esqe!
Great coverage! Thanks for showing us a place few know about and for others like me who knew about it but have never been to visit.
I have wooden ship builders in my famly backgroud. I think five of their boats could have fit in here!
Perhaps I could also say, that this place had a hand in my being alive. You see, my great grandfather was on the next boat to be sunk by the Merrimack but in the nick of time, the Monitor came to the rescue.
Again, well done article about how an excellent tripod can do magic.
Thank you so much for the kind words. I very much appreciate it! Very cool to hear about your family's maritime past!