My friend, the great photographer Geoffrey James, was able to get an all-access pass to Kingston Penitentiary, including the Segregation Unit and those cells only moments before occupied by such murderous sexual deviates as Saul David Betesh, Paul Bernardo and Russell Williams.
As with all great art there is precedent and tradition. Prisons are not a common subject in the societal lexicon or dialogue – they should be but they’re not; in photography or in life. But the formidable American shooter Danny Lyon has done it before, in the 1960s.
In Lyon’s case, he somehow talked his way into a number of operating prisons in Texas and got loose on the ranges and among the work crews. The results are quite remarkable. Not so easy getting access here. As Geoffrey is quick to point out, “Americans are different, they have no shame.”
Years ago, shortly before it was scheduled to close, Geoffrey tried to talk Eastern State Penitentiary officials in Philadelphia into a similar project but the vagaries of bureaucratic thinking denied him the necessary timely permissions and, as Geoffrey also said to me “once they say no, it’s forever.”
“So the trick this time was to never let anyone say no.”
Ironically, Eastern State, transformed into a successful tourist attraction, now encourages everyone to bring a camera. Bringing his camera, a digital Leica Rangefinder and taking pictures inside Eastern State now would be completely pointless for James. The part Geoffrey needed to capture is gone. Very soon after an institution like a prison or an asylum closes, it irrevocably changes and thereafter, “it too is gone forever.”
In a process that is somewhat magical what was once a Gothic house of horror becomes a tourist trap and just as they arrive in droves at Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater so to do tourists attend prisons like Eastern State and the Ohio State Reformatory (the 250,000 square-foot facility where “The Shawshank Redemption was shot in 1994) by the tens of thousands. Snapping pictures is what tourists do; it is not what Geoffrey James does.
Geoffrey has well learned over the years what all good investigative journalists know: “Never rush in and get a no.”
Chains of command must be learned. There are far more people in a bureaucracy that can say “no” than “yes. You have to know, literarily and figuratively, from whom you are seeking permission and what they may require to say “yes”.
In Geoffrey’s case he found his way to the right Regional Commissioner of Corrections, who he understood to have been the warden of the Kingston Prison For Women (K4W) where Karla Homolka was housed for the first 4 years of her sentence. It was similarly closed by the correctional authority for good when the last prisoner was transferred out in May 2008. The walls have been demolished and the property now belongs to Queen’s University.
The Commissioner understood implicitly what Geoffrey meant when he said the work had to be done immediately before the renovators moved in, while the laundry is still undone, because once closed and tampered with, the prison part of the facility evaporates.
She was predisposed to Geoffrey’s project because she knew exactly what he meant when he talked about evanescence and immediacy, to get in and start shooting right away even before all the prisoners had been relocated.
A prison is evacuated according to the incarcerated individual’s assessed risk level – the most dangerous first the least last. There are other considerations but that is the main criteria.
Some of the portraits of the inmates that were still there waiting to be moved (to where God and the prison authority only knows) are among the most haunting in the book.
Change is very difficult for the institutionalized – think about Brooks (James Whitmore) the old con in The Shawshank Redemption and the most gentle, wise and kind character in the movie.
When released after 50 years, Brooks hangs himself.
Shortly after they learn of Brooks’ fate, contraband smuggling con Red (Morgan Freeman) explains what it means to be “institutionalized” to Brooks’ best friends, fellow con Heywood (William Sadler) and convicted murderer Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins), the protagonist of this thoroughly compelling picture: “The man’s been in here fifty years. Fifty years! This is all he knows. In here, he’s an important man. He’s an educated man. Outside, he’s nothin’! Just a used up con with arthritis in both hands….These walls are funny. First you hate ’em, then you get used to ’em. Enough time passes, you get so you depend on them.”
The thirty-foot high, 10 foot thick limestone walls of the historic Kingston Penitentiary are those walls
The Shawshank Redemption was filmed on location in the famed Ohio State Reformatory in Mansfield, Ohio. As did Eastern State Penitentiary, the Ohio State Reformatory has been transmuted into a tourist magnet that has helped boost the economy of Manifield and the surrounding counties. Last year, the O.S.R. had 80,000 visitors. The 250,000-square-foot fortress, first opened in 1896, a number of years after the Kingston Penitentiary, has become a state landmark. Today it is as important to the local economies of the three or four surrounding counties as it was when it was a functioning prison.
Geoffrey James new book “Inside” about the historical Kingston Penitentiary has achieved his goal. All kinds of institutional cruelty as well as accomplishment, the troubling ambiguity that characterizes North American penal history, is palpable in many of the un-peopled photographs that otherwise appear to be, on the surface, explorations of architectural accents and angles.
It is thoroughly evocative collection that fully captures the spirit of place.
In many of the photographs the claustrophobic cells look like their occupants have just gone out to the canteen. Much of the prisoner’s artwork (some of it truly remarkable,) old-timey pin-ups and newspaper clippings still cling to the walls. Bunks appear just slept in with unlaundered blankets askew. The resulting collection of photographs, captions and short revealing endnote written by James is a disturbing, thought-provoking, completely original narrative that elegizes at the same time as it eulogizes… and indicts.
Fyodor Dostoevsky, the Russian novelist said, “The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons.” That has been my direct experience and its truth is manifest in Geoffrey James “Inside.”
This book of photographs, captions and short essay is exactly what Geoffrey James is all about: Composing narratives with magnificently rendered still photographs that capture both the past and the future.
He did this with his first published collection in 1989. la campagna Romana which appears to be a fine suite of beautifully framed landscape photographs taken with his “primitive, shoe-box panoramic camera.” It is, in fact, about the same thing “Inside” is about: the photographer’s search for something ineffable, in the case of la campagna Romana, the famed Roman countryside and whether it actually still exists.
In the preface to la campagna Romana Geoffrey James says “my journey, rather than leading to any kind of understanding of this landscape, brought only a dawning sense of the labyrinthine complexity of Italian life, of the manner in which the political permeates everything… at Castel di Leva, just south of Rome (Plate 17), I talked with a shepherd’s wife while staring across the GRA at a vast Eurosprawl of radio towers and supermarkets and military barracks – a vision, if ever there was one, of the future of campagna.”
Change a few nouns and verbs the same could be said about “Inside”. It’s about his search for the truth about prison, about it’s soul, no matter how dark, and what it says about our civilization.
Because he sees in this world – as it is immediate and inexorably captured by the lens – another world, perhaps one more real, with some vestige of truth, the one jagged piece of the jigsaw puzzle that allows for a multi-diminsional, integrated apperception. He thinks this might be it and that’s why he bothered.