Angelo Munafo: Penn’s New Woods

photocrati gallery

Posted on June19, 2015 by Angelo Munafo

Some 335 years ago, King Charles II gave William Penn a large tract of land in the Americas that that he called “Pennsylvania,” or “Penn’s Woods” in Latin. Penn established the province of Pennsylvania as a home for Quakers and played an integral role in designing the grid upon which the city of Philadelphia would be built. While most of his master plan was set into motion, urban development heavily favored the East bank (where the city’s main port was located). Hence, it was not until a century and a half after his death that Penn’s vision of a more balanced city was realized with the construction of City Hall at the midpoint between the Delaware and the Schuylkill Rivers. Penn always wanted Philadelphia’s public buildings to reside at a prominent Center Square, and he was fittingly honored with a 37-foot tall statue watching over the grand structure.

My portfolio focuses on the Center City district of Philadelphia at night, keying in on the area in the immediate vicinity of City Hall. All of the shots were taken the night of April 23, 2015. I felt it was appropriate to investigate this iconic section of Philly as my first year living in this great city comes to a close. The way I see it, the central theme of this series is the passage of time.

I explore time from a variety of angles, starting with the most literal manifestation of this phenomenon through the use of very long exposures to capture these images. Given the low light constraints under which I was working, most of my shots took upwards of fifteen or twenty seconds. Just as the starburst effect, streaking headlights, and blurred pedestrians are tangible products of a long exposure, so is the lack of noise in these shots evidence of the passage of time since the earlier days of photography, where poor electronic sensors or light-sensitive materials could never have yielded such a clean image from a 25 second exposure.

Much like the advancement of the photographic industry is emblematic of modern society, so is the development of the Center City skyline a marker of new generations. Aside from its Victorian architectural grandeur, City Hall is historically significant for a number of reasons. To this day, it remains the tallest masonry (or “non-skyscraper”) building constructed anywhere in the world, in addition to being one of the largest municipal buildings on earth. More impressive, it was the world’s tallest inhabitable building from 1894 to 1908 and the tallest building in Philadelphia until overtaken by One Liberty Place in 1987. The Comcast Center surpassed Liberty place in 2007, and one of my photos features all three of these buildings in order left to right, by age.

The proposal for Liberty Place met significant resistance because it broke the longstanding “gentleman’s agreement” that William Penn’s cap would be the highest point in the Philadelphia. Ironically, William Penn now sits on top of the city once again, thanks to a miniature figurine placed above of the Comcast Center to break the “Curse of Billy Penn” that had haunted Philly’s pro sports teams for three decades. Sure enough, the championship drought ended the following year when the Phillies won the World Series, seemingly confirming the superstition. It was as if the sports gods were acknowledging that the city had done wrong by answering its cries for reconciliation.

Many of my pictures depict the highfalutin structure anchoring Center Square juxtaposed with the stark backdrop of modern office buildings. This duality speaks to the rapidly changing times that have altered civic norms with respect to the feelings that we want our cities to evoke. To many, allowing buildings taller than William Penn entailed something much greater than the physical transformation that would ensue downtown; rather, the debate was a matter of clinging to a sense of tradition, community, and hominess.

Chronically unsatisfied creatures that we are, humans often long for an earlier time and all of the ideals associated with the past. Though we can never truly attain the past or even maintain the present, we long for it nevertheless. Perhaps this unattainability is in part what drives our obsession with reminiscing over the past, or perhaps it is simply a function of our memories and perceptions of history growing fonder with time. Either way, the many interpretations of the concept of time pose a worthy conceptual pursuit, and I believe my portfolio visually addresses all of these variants from the broad, “macro” analysis all the way down to the readily apparent, “micro” level of understanding.


Photography and Text by Angelo Munafo, Copyright 2015.


About the Author: Angelo Munafo recently finished his freshman year enrolled in the College of the University of Pennsylvania.  Class of 2018. To read more articles by Angelo Munafo, go to the search bar at the bottom of the page, type in author’s name: click the search icon.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *