Thursday, July 28, 2011



EPILOGUE: My visit to Eastern State Penitentiary was brief. I spent the better part of two days photographing there, walking the abandoned passages, peering into decaying cells, looking for photographs. I was a visitor, an outsider, maybe an intruder. My only other encounter with a real prison was an architectural project many years ago that took me inside the Pittsburgh City Jail. It was still in operation, an apparently efficient place with real prisoners and guards and checkpoints, and I recall being struck by the disjunction between the functions of imprisonment and the refined, rusticated graciousness of H.H. Richardson's Victorian detailing and design. Even though I couldn't see the prisoners in their cells, the presence of real people beyond the bars made the architectural incongruity overpowering. It was the clash of incompatible worlds or of the facade of culture and the underbelly of expedience.

Eastern State Penitentiary's effect on me was quite different. It had opened 1829 and closed in 1970. It was 41 years since it held prisoners, since guards maintained strict security routines, since the cell blocks throbbed with the pulse of daily life. Whatever graciousness had been in the place had crumbled to brutality. At first I unconsciously expected to find the artifacts of the prison's 19th century residents, but the artifacts we found were left by the largely Black and Hispanic prisoners that were there when it closed, people I might pass in the street or meet today. In the public sections I blended with other tourists snapping vacation pictures into i-Phones. Had any been imprisoned here? Nostalgic return was unthinkable, or was that what the rest of us were doing?

I went from block to block, cell to cell looking for meaning behind the ruins and found the voices of 140 years of imprisonment merging like a chorus so that it was almost possible to forget that each cell held a real person, some good, some wicked, but all with similar yearnings: life, liberty, pursuit of happiness. Ultimately, however, the power of the experience rested on recalling that each ancient cell held a real person, that it had done so for 140 years, and that such institutions are everywhere and everywhere invisible.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Abandoned Concrete Factory, 2011

PHOTOGRAPHER'S JOURNAL: Our factories are empty and our prisons are full.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Cell Block Five

PHOTOGRAPHER'S JOURNAL: Prisons are places set apart from time. Those who go to prison speak of losing so many years of their lives, and when they return to society, they often find society has moved beyond them and they are stuck in a different place, faded and decades apart.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011


PHOTOGRAPHER'S JOURNAL: 9X9, rowed, stacked, and locked - so many cells, so many lives walled off. It is a place to learn what it means to be truly alone.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Final Cut or Close Shave

PHOTOGRAPHER'S JOURNAL: Prisons of stone restrain the body; their boundaries are clear, fixed, easy to define. The mind's prisons entrap the spirit; their edges are shadowy, indeterminate, always menacing.

Friday, July 15, 2011

The Conk

PHOTOGRAPHER'S JOURNAL: A prison is a community. It's nature is dependent on the interactions of individuals.

PHOTOGRAPHER'S JOURNAL 2:  Freedom exists even where there is no liberty.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Bunk Beds

PHOTOGRAPHER'S JOURNAL: Count the number of prisoners and measure the size of society's failure. That failure reverberates through time in broken families, lost lives, defeat, poverty and desolation.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Underworld Overview

PHOTOGRAPHER'S JOURNAL: Prisons are ideas, laws made stone, a foundation to support community and the Golden Rule, walls to make us trust, a blockhouse defense against the forces of entropy and madness.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Cell Block Fourteen

PHOTOGRAPHER'S JOURNAL: Prisons open a path into crime. They are outposts of the underworld where breezes mingle with whispering secrets sharp as knives. They whistle along the edges of passageways, slip through stone, and nobody knows where they expire or who keeps tally of the honor of thieves.

NOTE: Those seeking a plan of Eastern State Penitentiary can find one here.

Friday, July 8, 2011

The Green Cell

PHOTOGRAPHER'S JOURNAL: Prisons provide a path to redemption. A penitentiery is a special kind of prison designed for the penitence and reform of the prisoner. Here the prescribed treatment for lasting and deep contrition was prolonged, solitary confinement.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Cell Block Seven

PHOTOGRAPHER'S JOURNAL: Prisons are ministers of punishment. They seek to console society and its victims by making those who caused suffering to suffer.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

The Hub

PHOTOGRAPHER'S JOURNAL: Prisons may keep us safe or terrorize us, but they are always about control.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011


PHOTOGRAPHER'S JOURNAL: In prison, the wings of imagination are borne on the winds of escape, but waiting is the endless orbit of doing time.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Cell Block Twelve, Floor Three

PHOTOGRAPHER'S JOURNAL: Imprisonment is antithetical to freedom. Prisons measure the failure of a society to be free. Their walls are scarred with that failure.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

From Outside Cell Block Eight

PHOTOGRAPHER'S JOURNAL: We go to abandoned buildings to feel the past resonate in the present and to find out who we have become. The reverberations of an abandoned prison echo differently than other buildings. When a home, a hospital, a school, or a factory is abandoned it is usually a loss for a community with deep memories invested there. However, when a prison closes few mourn its passing, there is little nostalgia, and the memories are dispersed. Although the symbolism of prison is fundamental to society, most of us know prisons only from the outside and at a very great distance.

Friday, July 1, 2011

Guards' Window

PHOTOGRAPHER'S JOURNAL: I've been to The Pen. This is the place that originated the word, "penitentiary." I'm happy to say my trip was recreational. It makes a cosmos of difference. You can read about Eastern State Penitentiary here.