2005 penitentiary


A Proposal for Eastern State Penitentiary


Project Summary


An offset 24-28 page tabloid or newspaper of full-page black and white photographs distributed free of charge through two newspaper vending machines located on the site. The photographs will be images taken within the complex that visualize a dual reality of the site: that it was once a penitentiary where people were imprisoned, that it is now an historical site where visitors are free to come and go.




Eastern State is a place filled with contradictions.  As one walks around and through the edifice, or peers through the closed gates and wire mesh where admission is prohibited, one is struck by the beauty—the central core with the surrounding long deep corridors, repeating doors that appear like a hall of mirrors, the high vaulted ceilings, the detail in the iron works.  The haunting and romantic beauty of decay, of the nostalgia of time passed.   It is and was a beautiful piece of architecture.  This beauty contradicts the functional nature of the structure: it is a large cage, where over the years that it functioned thousands of people survived through long tedious hours in solitude.  It is a place where suffering took place, the type of suffering that happens in silence out of public view behind the walls of prison.  It was a gulag!

As I walked with the tour and later on my own I felt ill at ease.  What is it that attracts us so to such a dilapidated place?  To it’s peeling paint and cold chill?  What is the fascination we have with the suffering of others?  with incarceration?  In dealing with my own sickening fascination with the place I found myself watching the visitors, wandering freely joking through the corridors taking each others pictures in stark contrast to the inability of the inhabitants of the buildings past to have done the same.  The duality of the experience; contrapuntal realities held together by place, kept apart by time.

It is from this contradictory experience that I have formulated my proposal. The project is photo based—images taken today within the complex that exemplify this splitting in time, the duality of these separate realities.  These photographs will be sequenced and printed offset in tabloid form.  The tabloid (or newspaper) will be made available free of charge through two vending machines strategically placed within the complex. This is an object visitors will have to take with them; as such the tabloid will function as a tangible visual memory or link in time to their visit.

The photographs and their sequencing within the tabloid will build a narrative that describes the sensation I described above specifically: contrapuntal realities held together by place, kept apart by time. Specifically this would be images of the photographic displays of the past with the real space surrounding, or the models of the edifice as it was with the actual space behind, or someone stepping out of the opening where there once was a cell door.  I began during my visit to shoot photographs, but I clearly would have to return repeatedly spending time watching, building an image archive. The resulting visual narrative will form the body of the tabloid. A text will accompany the images also resulting from my time spent on the grounds.

The maintenance of the work requires that the staff keep the machines stocked with the tabloid until the full edition is distributed.  The machines can be inside or outside (exact location to be determined) and require no maintenance in themselves.