So the seed of my love affair with abandoned buildings was probably planted when I was very young and living in Louisiana. The state was full of old abandoned plantations back then. Many were easy to explore. My Dad would drive us around on the weekend to see how many places we could discover. It was fun and there was always a titillating sense of curiosity on so many levels.
The big break came when I was finishing college years later and a huge old prison downtown became abandoned. I had bicycled around the place many times, always curious as to what lay inside. The first time I was able to gain access was with a motion picture film crew from my school. They got permission from the Governor to shoot a student film inside and when I heard this I quickly asked one of the directors if I could join them on a shoot. He told me how to convince the remaining guard that I was part of the crew. Once inside the main gate, I was on my own.
To say that the place was spooky is an understatement! Once you made it past the main gate in the Administration Building you entered the yard. As you passed into various buildings, especially the cellblocks, you realized how many layers of entrapment were present. Gates within gates. Many locked doors. Thick bars and heavy gage fencing. The futility of existence in this place became oppressive. Even though you could still see the city over the wall, it seemed miles away.
This was also the period of my life when I was wrestling with my sexual identity. What I observed of mainstream gay lifestyle didn’t really mesh with my personality. I felt like a pariah in all worlds. And it wasn’t until many years after shooting these images that I realized that I identified with the loneliness – with the isolation of being so close to the “norm”, but having it inextricably out of range. This sensibility also translates into other abandoned structures I’ve photographed. That condition of once being significant in the eyes of society and now forgotten or discarded.
These Penitentiary images date to the mid-80’s. It sat empty for many years. After about 2 years, the State gave up on the poor soul guard watching this castle of despair. I wanted so much to return and shoot inside again. One day our over-zealous mayor, in an act of self-promotion, decided to start knocking the place down himself. He plowed a gaping hole into one end of the Administration building. Quickly some advisors warned him that the place really didn’t belong to the city yet and he could get in trouble. But his actions were enough. My wish was granted!
The Administration Building was the ONLY way in to the Pen. With half of it now missing, it was easy to climb inside. The only other roadblock was a huge locked gate that had its lock mechanism removed. This left about a 20″ square hole. If you were bigger than that, you couldn’t enter. Once inside, everything was available for exploration. The chapel, the factory buildings, the infirmary, the mess hall and even the little squat building that housed the electric chair – the Death House, as they called it.
This cluster of images is from one of my early trips inside. I’ve concentrated on the yard and the buildings for this posting. These are the few color images I actually shot, the remainder are in black and white. An ensuing post will feature more interior imagery sans color. It seems more appropriate to the space. It wasn’t exactly a colorful place anyways!