Eastern State Penitentiary
Eastern State Penitentiary, Philadelphia PA
EASTERN STATE PENITENTIARY
Eastern State Penitentiary embodied Quaker ideals about the nature of man and the redemptive powers of solitary reflection
and penitence. The Visionaries of Eastern State
believed that solitary confinement would heal the soul and allow time and
opportunity to reflect on a life of crime and to repent of past sins. Within the controlled environment,
it was believed that prisoner's would be able to reform themselves through solitude, work and penance, thus the new
name for America's prisons; penitentiary. After being interviewed and given prison clothes, the new convict was taken, with a hood placed over his head, to his
or her cell. Charles Dickens, later described this hood, used to mask the identity of the prisoners, as a "dark
shroud, an emblem of the curtain dropped between him and the living world."
Advocates of the Pennsylvania System saw it as transforming a criminal calling into a religious calling a true conversion of the sinner into saint. When Dickens visited Eastern he called the system was infernal, precisely because of its reliance on the unseen. Prisoners were invisible to each other and to the world. There were no scars and the effect of isolation could not be observed. Dickens thought public floggings preferable to this "slow and daily tampering with the mysteries of the brain."
Over the last several years one of my major projects has been photographing memorial art from around the World including, Italy, France and Russia. Upon looking at my first images of Eastern, I was struck to realize that these images were also photographs of graves. It became very clear that Eastern's cells were sepulchers - "burial vaults or receptacles for sacred relics - an alter". Indeed the Quaker philosophy at the foundation of Eastern and the Pennsylvania Plan was for the prisoner to die to self and be reborn again free of past sin. Each cell was designed with a sky light that served as the "Eye of God" an ever present alter offering the promise of redemption and salvation. The prisoners were a living symbol and often a sacrifice to a philosophical belief. As observed by Dickens, the isolation imposed by the Eastern State philosophy created an underground where the lives of the inmates were invisible to the rest of society. I had first experienced this reality when visiting children living in the sewers and the underground of Bucharest Romania. Like the children of Bucharest the reality of the lives of the people living at Eastern were invisible unless you were willing to descend into the underground and experience the reality of the sepulcher. The truth for many people was that they indeed became the living dead, confined to their own grave, but salvation and transformation never came. For many, the personal experience of a living death was only that of the darkness of depression and a descent into the chaos of mental illness.
In my most recent work of photographing classic memorial art around the World, I have found that the stone images which are my subjects are a profound exploration of man's struggle to understand his mortality and ultimately are an expression of his hope for transcendence. The stone statues as Saving Graces express powerful themes of transformation, salvation, transcendence, loss, fertility, rebirth, purity and renewal, all aspirations shared with the visionaries of the Pennsylvania Plan. However, the granite and marble Saving Graces wedded to the sepulchers of classical memorial art do not experience the isolation, suffering and loneliness of their human counterparts that occupied the sepulchers of Eastern State Penitentiary.
Eastern State Penitentiary - Web Site
Forged Images - Web Site
Perrott, Mark and Kirn, Hal (1999). Hope Abandoned, Eastern State Penitentiary. Pennsylvania Prison Society and the Eastern State Penitentiary Historic Site, United States
(1971). Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, United States
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Eastern State Penitentiary Web Site
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