Eastern State Penitentiary

Stepping Outside my Comfort Zone

Believe me, I am far from tired of pointing my camera at the beauty of nature, but I have long had thoughts of trying something different, something unfamiliar and outside my “comfort zone”.  So armed with a weekend to myself due to my wife and children being away, I looked into possible locations and decided on Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia.  It sits decaying just a stones throw from the Philadelphia Museum of Art and yet, I had never even seen it.  So I made the decision to get there at 10am when the doors opened in hopes of getting some hallway shots before the crowds arrived.  Parking was $8 for two hours, admission was $14 for an adult and I needed to pay a $10 fee for my tripod (which covers me for the year).  I did find it a bit ironic that the weather was absolutely beautiful that day and I was going to spend my time in a dusty, decaying old prison.

The Lond Hall

A first look down one of the hallways at Eatern State Penitentiary.

Locked Door

One of the photos as I tried to get closer on some of the aging elements.

I had some preconceived shots in my head from searching the web and getting a basic idea of what the historic site was like.  I also looked at a number of images focused on abandoned places, urban decay and old machinery to get a better sense of my final product.  But despite this bit of preparation I new I would be a little lost once I arrived.  After paying I opted out of the included audio tour, narrated by actor Steve Buscemi, and looked for places away from the beginning of the audio tour.  I found an empty hallway and began to setup.  The place was amazing; full of texture, color and possibilities.  It took me a while to find my photographic footing.

I started with the hallway shots and explored some tighter options focusing on peeling paint, doorknobs, etc.  After not really getting anything overly exciting, I turned my attention to the interior of the cells. That is where the magic was for me.  Each cell was very different, like a mini stage to photograph.  I wish I explored a number of them first because I honestly wasted a good 15 minutes on the first one I saw.  Once I realized this, I looked into many different rooms to identify my top choices to photograph.  I ended up with a couple I was very happy with but noticed the time was passing quickly.  There was one cell I knew I wanted to get to before leaving… the famous cell of Al Capone.  It was an impressive room between the decaying walls and finer furniture.  This was a tough shot to setup because the iron bar door to the cell is closed and locked with only the small window open to place your camera lens through.  This made the $10 equipment fee all the more worthwhile.

Al Capone's Cell

Al Capone’s Cell was vastly different than every other cell. I am sure it stood out even more during it’s actual use.

What was most interesting to me about the cells was the small, thin window in the ceiling of each room.  The way the light would shine down like a spotlight into the room was very appealing to me, but only as a visitor of course!  It was also lucky that I made my visit on a sunny day and the sunlight was almost directly over head later in my visit.  I am a fan for watching the light and this was what got me hooked on the old living quarters for prisoners.  I found the rooms that had the light shining down appealed to me much more then the darker ones where the scenery appeared much more flat.

Boot

A single boot sits center stage a midst the slow decay of wood and paint.

My two hour parking limit approached much faster than I thought it would and I honestly could have spent triple that time getting to know the place and photograph.  But the crowds were growing much bigger than I thought, making things a little tougher because I did not want to be rude to the other visitors.  So, I made mental notes of what shots to get next time I visit and began heading home ready to review and process some good imagery… hopefully.

Shadows and Dust

No where to go but up, if you step from the darkness surrounding you.

I am really glad I decided to take on this experiment “outside my comfort zone”.  I felt I learned a lot and also obtained a new interest in a different genre of photography.  I do see myself return to Eastern State Penitentiary now that I have some shots to get and a my year long equipment pass paid for.  So thanks for reading about my day trip and viewing some of the images.

Please feel free to contact me if you have any questions about the location or my post process on the images.  If you want to see some more image from this shoot I will continue to upload photos to an album on my flickr account.

Bryan

2 Comments Add Yours

  1. Kyle

    Great compositions! They really capture the bleakness and all of the history inside those walls.

    Was HDR a part of the post-processing?

    Reply
    • Bryan Nord

      Thanks Kyle. To answer your question, I did not use HDR but did shoot 3 exposures for each image and blended them using luminosity masks. Shooting in RAW format is also a must for me so I have the maximum control over color, contrast and tone in my post process.

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