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The Beauty of Darkness, Dirt & Decay at Eastern State Penitentiary

Updated: Apr 29, 2021

Tamron SP35mm Di VC USD: 1/800Sec., f/1.8 ISO 1600 @ 35mm

Opening in 1829 and for the next 142 years Eastern State Penitentiary incarcerated some of the most notorious prisoners of all time such as prisoners like Al Capone and “Slick Willie” Sutton. When it was completed and opened to inmates it was considered the largest and most expensive public structure ever built in the United States. As a place of incarceration, ESP was a model for prisons to come and was considered to be the first true penitentiary and not a prison. With its innovative structural designs and unique way of providing inmate interaction, ESP was meant to be a place for possible rehabilitation rather than punishment.

Tamron SP15-30mm Di VC USD: 1/2Sec., f/16 ISO 1600 @ 15mm

The history of Eastern State Penitentiary started as far back as 1787 when a group of very influential Philadelphians, which included the likes of Benjamin Franklin, formed the group Known as The Philadelphia Society for Alleviating the Miseries of Public Prisons. It took the society more than 30 years to convince the local government of Philadelphia that their ideas of a Penitentiary with no corporal punishment could work. The Architecture was a radical idea as well with the 7 original cell blocks starting from a central rotunda, and from there the guards could easily survey the blocks that radiated out of like a wagon wheel.

Tamron 10-24mm Di II VC PZD: 1/15Sec., f/8 ISO 40 @ 14mm

In 1971 ESP was closed and abandoned until the 1980’s when the city of Philadelphia purchased the property and proposed to use the land for commercial use. Then, in the late 1980’s a group of architects and preservationists convince the mayor of its historical significance and he called back all plans to demolish the prison and the first tours of the prison begin. Today ESP has become one of Philadelphia’s top tourist attractions with more than 300,000 visitors walking its cells blocks and grounds each year.

Tamron 10-24mm Di II VC PZD: 1/15Sec., f/8 ISO 40 @ 14mm

With its flacking paint covered walls, crumbling plaster and dark musty corridors ESP may sound like a place no one would want to visit. Instead, to hundreds of thousands of visitors each year it provokes images of the past, and to historians it reveals the development of our nations correctional system. While to a photographer, these crumbling hallways with highlights and deep shadows are visually fascinating and just waiting to be captured on their cameras sensor. A photographer can get there when it first opens, stay all day and be the last one to leave and still not capture half of what the penitentiary has to offer photographically.

Tamron SP35mm Di VC USD: 1/800Sec., f/1.8 ISO 1600 @ 35mm

If you are a photographer going to ESP for the first time, there are a few things you will need to bring with you. They are, a good tripod, shutter release device, lens cloths, flashlight and a range of lenses from wide angle to macro. Since many of the locations you will be photographing are either dimly lit or not lit at all, your shutters speeds will be very slow and a tripod will be necessary to capture a sharp image. Your shutter release cable or remote is important for the same reason as the tripod, keeping your camera perfectly still with no movement no matter how miniscule during those long exposures. There will be tons of dust flying around the corridors and cells of the penitentiary, so a good lens cloth will help keep the front element of you lens clean. Since many cells are still completely dark, you will not be able to see what is inside without a flashlight. don’t only use it to see what in those dark cells. Use your flashlight as a photographic tool to wash specific parts of the cell with light during your long exposure. This is called painting with light and can create a unique look to your images. Lastly the lenses you will need a wide-angle lens (Tamron 10-24mm or 15-30mm) to get into those tight places as well as to create an along extend look to the cell blocks. a good medium focal length lens to get those tighter shots and a macro for those really up-close detail and texture images.

Tamron SP35mm Di VC USD: 1/250 Sec., f/1.8 ISO 1600 @ 35mm

Eastern State Penitentiary is an expansive location to photograph, so trying to shoot it all in one day can be difficult. Try not to rush through just to try and capture as many images as you can, go in with a game plan so you can take your time. Do some research, go online to look at the layout of the floor plan and take a look at some images other photographers have taken to get an idea of what to expect.

Below are some images of popular areas to photograph.

Al Capone’s Cell

Tamron SP17-50mm Di II VC: 1/18 Sec., f/2.8 ISO 640 @ 17mm

The Infirmary

Tamron SP90mm Di VC USD: 1/100 Sec., f/3.2 ISO 200 @ 90mm

The Barber Shop

Tamron SP24-70mm Di VC USD: 1/15 Sec., f/16 ISO 400 @ 28mm

Lenses used in this Article

Tamron 24-70mm Di VC USD

Tamron 90mm Di VC USD

Tamron 17-50mm Di II VC

Tamron 35mm Di VC USD

Tamron 15-30mm Di VC USD

Tamron 10-24mm Di VC

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