Construction on Eastern State Penitentiary was started in 1822, and it was operational from 1829 to 1971. At the time it was the largest and most expensive public structure ever built, and it became a model for over 300 prisons worldwide. Prisoners were kept in solitary confinement with a bible and a single source of light in the ceiling, the “Eye of God”. The concept was this solitary reflection would create penitence. The results were mixed at best. Many couldn’t read. In 1842 Charles Dickens travelled to the United States for the express purpose of visiting Niagara Falls and seeing Eastern State. He stated: “I hold this slow and daily tampering with the mysteries of the brain to be immeasurably worse than any torture of the body...”
Each image from this series “On the Inside” is a set of 12 individual exposures, shot on film, then scanned and stitched together using computer software designed to create a series of virtual reality views of areas of the prison not accessible to the general public. The views are a full 360 degrees. The left side of the image meets up with the right.
The site has changed dramatically since these photos were shot in 1999 and 2000. The Synagogue has been completely restored, the ceiling in the Central Surveillance Hub is gone, plaster has fallen and been restored. The Chaplains Outer Office is no longer there. While the changes have been necessary in order to accommodate visitors and preserve the structure - what you see here is gone. These images are a moment in time after the building was left abandoned and before the funding to preserve the site was in place. Sean Kelley, Eastern’s program Director, and the man who took me around the site to get these images, is to be credited with the lion’s share of the vision and commitment necessary to save Eastern State.
The technology used to take the photos was traditional - a 35mm camera with a 17mm lens - but the technology needed to print them properly only recently arrived. This is the first time the images have been printed to my satisfaction, both in image quality and size. This was a difficult series to print, not only because of technical challenges, but because of the nature of the subject. Like all places where people have suffered a great deal, Eastern State has a palpable presence which is not easily translated.
© Harrison Judd - Photographer