ArtsWeek: The Eye of God

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…

Cell interiors

Camera: Canon Rebel EOS Digital SLR

Location: Eastern State Penitentiary, Philadelphia, PA

For more work by Kelly Bearden, visit her personal blog.

9 replies »

  1. Just a staggering series, Kelly. I try and imagine not only the place, but the enforced silence. I can’t fathom how anybody entering that place could last more than a week with his (I assume these were men only?) sanity intact.

  2. This leaves me breathless – it’s staggering to imagine being left in this space. Beautiful capture of light.

  3. Amazing photographs. I’ve been there and concur that it’s one of the more powerful (in a dreadful way) places one can visit.

    IIRC, it had indoor plumbing before the White House…necessary for the solitary confinement. That was the problem, Slammy, most everyone went crazy rather than being reformed.

    It seems that it won’t be going anywhere either. Though the land it sits on is valuable, the cost of razing the prison exceeds the worth of the property…the outside walls are Medieval fortress thick. Trivial note: the prison scenes in 12 Monkeys were filmed at Eastern State Pen

  4. Stunning photos. Too bad the solitary resulted in the psychotic breaks to which Lex alluded. The Quakers must have intended, by the way they built or had it built, and through the solitary and silence, for it to be a monastery-like environment. In hopes the inmates would undergo metamorphosis into monks.

  5. That’s exactly what happened, Russ. At the time, crimes were punished by, well, punishment. The Quaker idea was to build a place of penance where criminals could heal their spirits and reform. (which neglects the part of the ideal that it be voluntary) They tyranny of unintended consequences has left us with the Quaker penitentiary model with solitary confinement reserved for special penitence situations.

    Our recidivism rates suggest that the idea doesn’t work, even toned down from the original vision.

    • Unintended consequences, indeed. I doubt this model did much to further the goal of rehabilitating the criminal. It did aplenty in the way of punishment, though.

      I’d love to see the recidivism rates for those who survived it….

  6. as a side note – my favorite thing about ESP? since it closed in 1972, there are former inmates who are still alive and well and every year (in April, i think) Eastern STate has an Alumni Day – BBQ in the prison yard, etc – and the living former inmates and former guards and such come and talk about the place – the guide we had this last time told us that many of them love to take you to their old cells and tell you stories.

    so. mst go for alumni day. must.

    (and thanks, everyone, for stopping by. be sure to go to the ESP website for the actual history and tons of visitors photos in the gallery. i swear it is impossible *not* to take good photos in thtis place.)