A great wonder of still photography lies in its power to manipulate time. A photograph may capture the blinking of an eye, or it may pack hours, days, or even years, into a single frame. In any case, the photograph holds the results, suspended indefinitely, allowing the viewer to leisurely contemplate their relationship to the inexorable flow of life.
These images were made at Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia, PA. The now decommissioned prison was constructed in the early 19th century and was considered the model for modern correctional facilities for many years. The original operating principle at ESP was based on Quaker ideas of solitary confinement, whereby the prisoner, denied both human contact and the world outside his cell, would have no choice but to meditate upon his wrongdoings. With the aid of Biblical readings and “The Eye of God”, a slotted window in the cell roof which served as the sole source of “heavenly” light, it was thought the prisoner would eventually find contrition for his crimes and through that, redemption. At the time, some called this system a perfect plan, while others called it brutal torture. It is an argument that continues today.
This project, The Penitent, is illustrative of photography’s ability to work in several temporal spaces simultaneously to elicit meaning. We sense the passage of time through the decay currently evident in these spaces. This physical deterioration serves to transport us back through the years, hinting at the psychic deterioration suffered by those who occupied these spaces.