Brass Valley: The Fall of an American Industry

Brass Valley: The Fall of an American Industry
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Thursday, July 28, 2011

Sightseeing



PHOTOGRAPHER'S JOURNAL

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.