WAITING AT ESP
“Waiting at ESP” incorporates many aspects of Eastern State Penitentiary’s history and the environment of its’ current state. This dark lonely place was perfect for my techniques with pinhole cameras, and the texture and colors of the building’s inner walls worked beautifully with handmade paper and gum bichromate printing. Each part of this project builds upon the other and relates back in such a way as to create a wholeness and a sense of belonging to the prison.
Eastern State Penitentiary is the oldest penitentiary in the world, in use from 1829 to 1971. What made Eastern State a penitentiary, unique in it’s time, was the separation of prisoners into individual cells, as opposed to the traditional method of housing them all in large rooms. The purpose was to force upon them an isolation that would allow for penitence and contemplation on the crime that put them there, with the intention of reforming them. Each prisoner had a small individual cell, with a toilet, central heat, a small private exercise yard, and a small window in the ceiling. 23 hours a day were spent alone in that cell with nothing to do but think. After closing in 1971 the prison was reopened as a historic site for public tours in 1994, and in 1995 they began having site specific artist installations.
The first image that comes to my mind when thinking about Eastern State Penitentiary is a prisoner’s cell. The inmates’ cell is the part that makes up the whole of any prison. At Eastern State, it is their physical space that was at the forefront of the designer’s thoughts when conceiving of the layout of the building. In this design inmates were intended to spend all their time, except 1 hour of each day, in those cells. There comes to mind the classic American image of a prisoner’s cell, having a square window in the wall with bars over it. At Eastern State it is actually a rectangular recessed slit in either the ceiling or the back wall. Through this opening a small amount of sunlight travels, and as the days pass, and the seasons pass, that light travels around the inside of the cell. It falls on the wall, the floor, the furniture, and the occupant of the cell. In its travels, the patch of sunlight changes shape, highlights one area, and leaves another in shadow. My photographs focus on the moving 2 dimensional shape the light makes.
To take the photographs I converted a model of the Eastern State Penitentiary administration building into a pinhole camera. This model is sold in the gift shop as a flat piece of cardboard that must be folded and taped to make a 3 dimensional box. I have printed the images onto handmade paper using the gum bichromate process. The dominant colors at ESP are a deep brick red and a light mint green. I chose to alternate these 2 colors in the printing process, first a layer of red and then a layer of green, or vice versa. This technique creates a deeper image, because of the contrasting colors, and it also smoothly inserts the images into the setting of the penitentiary because of the similarity in color scheme. The images are placed in the placards above each cell that originally held information about the prisoner in the cell. To hold the images to the rusty metal placards I used small cube magnets that are coated in rust from the prison as camouflage.
As I waited on each shooting day at the penitentiary for the sun to move about the cell, or for an errant cloud to move and expose the sun, I imagined the waiting of the prisoners. Each in their solitude; waiting for their next chance in the exercise yard, for their next meal, for a trip to the barber, for the end of their sentence. If they didn’t spend the time feeling penitence for their crime, what else could they do? Watch, as I do, the sun move across their cell. Day after day, month after month, year after year, it moves in its repeating path; a path that it continues to follow to this day. In my photographing, I am seeing the same shapes and shadows the prisoner saw, albeit in a much deteriorated setting.
The final prints are so seamlessly integrated into the penitentiary space they almost disappear. The images are dark and abstract because of the process of making them. A pinhole image is always slightly fuzzy, but when printed on textured handmade paper with the soft gum bichromate process, you get something even softer. The colors in the printing are the dominant red and green of the penitentiary. The small 3” x 5” prints are neatly tucked into the placards above each cell door in a block of 24 cells. If you’ve wandered around the site and seen many other cells with placards over them, there is a good chance you may not notice that these ones have images placed in them. After peering into many different cells, with the same windows, and the same patterns created on the walls and floors, the shapes of sunlight in my photographs will seem familiar, almost comforting. It is the certainty and continuity of what lies inside the prison cell.