Oakland 16th Street Station

The Oakland 16th Street Station, also called the Central Oakland Station, was built in the early 1900s as a grand terminus for the Southern Pacific Railway. In service until 1994, the station also served as a transportation hub, connecting the local East Bay Electric Railway and Amtrak with the Southern Pacific.

Hall of Shadows © Harold Davis
Hall of Shadows © Harold Davis

Taken out of service in 1994, the station is now disconnected from all train tracks, fenced, and locked. A local not-for-profit development corporation has owned the station since its closure. Located in what has become a mixed neighborhood with light industry, single-room residence hotels, ad-hoc homeless villages of shopping carts and makeshift tents, neighborhood vegetable gardens, and fancy gated condo communities, in the shadow of the highway maze surrounding the approaches to the San Francisco Bay Bridge, the future of this historic structure is unclear. Currently, it is sporadically rented as a movie set, for parties (there has been at least one wedding here), and to groups of roving photographers.

Bench for Waiting © Harold Davis
Bench for Waiting © Harold Davis

Late in the afternoon I joined a small group of co-conspirators who arranged for legitimate access to the site. Meeting at the gate to the property, we were locked in by the somewhat grumpy caretaker, who planned to release us four hours later. It turned out he was a pussy cat when he came to let us out, and genuinely concerned and excited about the history and preservation of the structure.

Before daylight faded we photographed in the main waiting area, on the train platforms that lead to nowhere, and in the arcades below the tracks.

Dinosaur Climbing Stair © Harold Davis
Dinosaur Climbing Stair © Harold Davis

About the images: The top image, Hall of Shadows, combines two photos, each shot with my Zeiss 15mm f/2.8 wide-angle lens with the camera on a tripod at f/10 and ISO 200. A darker photo was made using a 30 second exposure time, and a lighter one was made at 60 seconds.

One of my co-conspirators brought a self-powered 600 watt strobe. In the first, darker image he fired it just outside the door, and also from the outside of the windows. In the longer, lighter exposure he illuminated the whole room, using sequential light bursts.

I visualized this incredible room with its ghosts of the past as a dim, shadowy place. My idea was that the details should not be entirely clear because of the darkness. People passed through this station, living their lives, having love affairs, taking the train to go to war or to different destinies. All these lives haunt the 16th Street Station, and now they are passing into obscurity.

To capture this idea, I started with the first, dark exposure, then gradually painted in some areas of light and shadow from the brighter image. I took great care not to reveal too much, and to leave the image low-key and mysterious.

Bench for Waiting was photographed while there was still a little afternoon light in the waiting hall. It’s a straightforward monochromatic HDR image, shot on the tripod at 28mm, with three exposures ranging from 5 seconds to 30 seconds, each exposure at f/22 and ISO 200. This bench is pretty amazing, sitting there placidly, with the decaying plaster walls of the monumental space behind it.

The compositional trick was to align my camera at a height to as nearly as possible approach the bench in a completely perpendicular fashion. The point of this was camera position was to minimize perspective distortion, and was harder to accomplish than one might think in the dim light.

End of the Line and Dinosaur Climbing Stairs were photographed in the arcade beneath the tracks. I used multi-image bracketing to render them colorful, and to extend the dynamic range of each image.

End of the Line © Harold Davis
End of the Line © Harold Davis

Special thanks to those who organized and participated in this fun and exciting photographic event (you know who you are!).

This Post Has One Comment

  1. Hi Harold.

    First of all, I love your site and all the unexplored or tucked away places to see within the bay area.
    I have worked at this Oakland station as a model 2 years ago, but would you know what a permit could cost or if one is needed to be able to do my own photography here with a model?

    I am in the San Jose are and am not very familiar with most places you have posted though they look very cool and nice, would you happen to know or be familiar with places in the bay are (particularly the san fran area to san jose area) where I could do my own photography with and without a model while also not needing a permit?

    Thank you and hope you are well

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