by Kelly Bearden
Eastern State Penitentiary was built in the early 1800s in Philadelphia on a Quaker ideal of actual penitence – the prisoners were in solitary confinement for the duration of their sentences, not allowed to read anything other than the bible (not even letters), or speak or make a sound at all. Originally built about a mile from the original center of Philadelphia, the prison walls were soon surrounded by a thriving neighborhood. The last prisoner was moved out and the doors were finally shut for good in 1972, leaving the huge structure to fall into ruin. In the 1990s, the doors were reopened, this time for tours, and ESP is now a thriving museum and tourist destination.
The prison has not been refurbished, but simply stabilized – the museum itself considers the place a “preserved ruin.”
This is truly one the most beautiful and haunting places I have ever had the privilege of visiting. The cellblocks were filled with the space of cathedrals, skylights replacing stained glass… As a photographer, the light streaming through the “Eye of God” (pictured above – each original cell had a small, private exercise yard and was lit entirely from a slitted sky-light) was something that I was aching to capture on film. The idea stuck in my head that for these prisoners – not being allowed to speak or hum or communicate in any way, never seeing another soul beyond the guards – who were not allowed to speak to them – the Eye of God was their only companion, the light from the sky the only thing to ground them in their humanity….it was both a beacon of hope that something existed outside of their limbo, and a taunt that life existed without them.
Cellblock – Cathedral
Death Row Shower
Even here, the Eye of God is on you…
Camera: Canon Rebel EOS Digital SLR