Visiting Old Haunts

Eastern State Penitentiary, Philadelphia, PA

There are always places that I like to visit more often than most.  Occasionally, I take a break from those locations and then I revisit after a long time.  The break is important, sometimes:  It allows you to forget.  Forgetting is, sometimes, what allows you to see things with a fresh set of eyes.  When I stay away from a place for a while, I tend to find some incredible shots when I go back.

The photo at the right is the great and wonderful Eastern State Penitentiary (or ESP for short).  To say that ESP is a muse would be an understatement; I easily have 200 photos from that place.  For those unfamiliar, ESP opened in 1829 as the first Penitentiary in the world.  When it opened, it was both innovative and archaic.  Prisoners were taken in with hoods on their heads, placed in a solitary 10’x12′ cell (with a private 10’x16′ outdoor exercise yard) where they would serve their entire sentence without any human contact what-so-ever.  Even Charles Dickens wrote about how horrible the facility was to the human spirit.  Even so, the facility was state-of-the-art with its internal plumbing and heat.  It even had plumbing before the White House.  Many prisons throughout the world followed in its footsteps with many countries opening their own Penitentiaries.  But the system had many downfalls, not least of which was the mental health of the inmates.  They were very expensive to operate.  So the solitary system ended in 1913.  ESP remained open as a prison until 1971 when it finally closed its doors.

Today, the facility has since been reopened as a museum.  But not before decades of rainwater, invasive plants and ruin fell upon the place.  When the facility first opened as a museum, visitors were required to wear hardhats.  They have since stabilized much of the facility, but the administrators have chosen to maintain the facility as a stabilized ruin: They’ve done what they can to make sure it doesn’t get any more dilapidated, but they have otherwise left it alone.  Photographers, like myself, have been drawn to the place because it is one of the few places where one can legally experiment with urban exploration type photography.

I was a member for several years.  I visited the facility at least a half-dozen times every year for a stretch of 4-5 years.  I credit ESP with teaching me about low-light photography, off-camera flash and patience, most of all.  The legend is that the place is haunted.  I have never witnessed anything, but it is a very trying place to photograph.  Shooting at ESP made me appreciate wide angle lenses (Like my favorite Sigma 8-16mm Zoom) and it certainly made me appreciate tripods.  If you do not have patience, a tripod and some off-camera flashes, you will not be able to create a reasonable photograph in there.  I grew to really love and appreciate ESP.

But life happens, and I spent several years away.  I’m not complaining…that’s life…it happens that way sometimes.  But recently, I returned with my Fujifilm X100s, and it was like I fell in love again.  So much has changed.  They opened more locations, they stabilized more property.  They have expanded the tour (if that’s your thing).  But most of all, it was like I had seen it for the first time again.  There was so much to shoot, so many things new to try.  The photo at the top of this post, for example, was taken outside the walls of ESP.  I don’t know why, but I never really thought about what existed outside (kicking myself now for not spending more time out there).  The photo at right was in an area that was previously not open to the public.  I got a private tour there once, which was awesome, but did not allow me to really set up for a shot.

I expect I’ll return again someday soon.

My wife and kids were with me this time and they pointed out a great number of things, some of which I never noticed before.  I can certainly tell my kids have a similar appreciation for the place as I, but my son really took a lot of interest in what I was doing.  If he doesn’t grow up to be a photographer, I’ll be surprised.