Eastern State Penitentiary

Spending time in prison is not really all that bad if it is Eastern State Penitentiary (ESP) in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. In fact, if you are a photographer, you will down-right love it, especially since you can walk out free at the end of the day. ESP was once the most famous and expensive prison in the world and was home to some of the countries most famous gangsters, like Al Capone and bank robber "Slick" Willie Sutton. Today it is a run down, crumbling collection of cells that are in what can be called an arrested state of decay. The prison is not fixed up, but it is also not allowed to decay any more than can be helped. For a photographer there is a host of subjects to shoot. It also has a fascinating history.

Eastern State Penitentiary was the world's first true "penitentiary" meaning it was designed and run to inspire penitence in the hearts of those who found themselves inside its walls. This was done following a Quaker-inspired system of isolation from other prisoners, along with hard labor. To prevent even the slightest degree of interaction the inmates were hooded whenever they were outside of their cells. Imagine all of the bleeding-hearts that would be marching in the streets if they tried that these days.

The prison was built like a wheel with the cell blocks radiating out from a central point like the spokes of a wheel. Each cell had a vaulted ceiling, with skylight, running water, central heat and a toilet. This was at a time when even the President in the White House did not have running water and was heated by a coal burning stove. People came from all over the world to see and study this prison system and even Charles Dickens wrote about it. I cannot cover the whole history of ESP, so to learn the whole story visit their web site at www.easternstate.org/home under the "Learn" pull-down window. You will be amazed by what you will learn.

Al Capone's cell was fully furnished probably with the help of bribed guards. There is enough light for a single shot, but this is an HDR bracket.
Al Capone's cell was fully furnished probably with the help of bribed guards. There is enough light for a single shot, but this is an HDR bracket.

Click here for view of larger images and captions

For your photo trip to ESP you can plan to see such things as Al Capone's cell, and the cell from which Willie Sutton dug an escape tunnel to outside of the wall. The tunnel is filled in, but the main hole is still in his cell wall, and you can actually go inside the cell and photograph it. (You cannot go inside Al Capone's cell, but it is very easy to photograph it through the door window.) Other cells of interest are the barber shop, the operating room in the prison hospital, and even death row. There is no execution chamber at ESP. All executions were done elsewhere, but death row prisoners were housed there until that day.

Barber Shop

When going to ESP there is a good parking lot a half a block away. For equipment you will need a wide angle lens to shoot the large areas of the cell blocks, and take a good zoom telephoto lens because many of the cells you cannot go inside of, but they still have interesting subjects inside of them that you will need the long reach for. Most cells are blocked off and you are not allowed to go inside, but you can still shoot inside of them from the open doors. You will see what I mean when you get there, so take the telephoto. You will be sorry if you don't. I was on one trip when I left it at home. You can also take a flash for added lighting since most cells do not have lighting inside of them, but if you are there on a good sunny day there will be enough of light coming in through the skylight to expose with. But, you will still also need a tripod. You should also learn how to shoot bracketed exposures for HDR processing the files. There is enough of light to get a good image, but if you want to get a shot full of detail, it will have to be an HDR image, which is what you see here with my illustrations.

Blurred Shot with Ghost

If you happen to be in eastern Pa. this month, ESP probably has the best Halloween events you will see anywhere. Ghouls, monsters, and ghost characters are all over the place for their holiday night time tours, and speaking of ghosts, ESP also is said to really be haunted. I am not saying that I got a shot of one of them, but the next illustration you see here is a blurred effect that I gave to a lot of shots to get this eerie look, and the glare you see on the left edge I cannot explain because the cells along there do not have lights in them, so where did the glare come from? If you happen to see my ghost, tell him I said "Hi."The web site for ESP will give you all you need to know for an enjoyable visit that I am sure you will love making. I have been there several times and got great new images each time. With a few imaging tricks you can convert them into something like my next "Dark Solitary" image that has become a lot of people's favorite.

Dark Cell

by Paul W. Faust

All photo illustrations included with my articles are my original work. My travel photographs, and many of my other original photographs, are available as signed or unsigned fine art prints through my web site at http://www.Impressions-of-Light.com/order-page-2. Framed prints can be obtained through my Fine Art America gallery at https://ww.paul-w-faust.pixels.com/.

Photographs included with my book and product reviews are provided by the book publisher or product manufacturer.

Paul W. Faust is a self-taught Fine Art Photographer, Writer, and Photo Stock Service professional.

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