Nothing can compare to the overwhelming solemnity of the Old Ohio Penitentiary which used to sit prominently at the end of Neil Avenue near the Scioto River in downtown Columbus. The city has done much since it’s demolition to eliminate the heinous blot that this prison cast on the remainder of the city. Owing its construction to original stockades and prisons built early in the city’s life, its final stone edifice was constructed with prisoner labor in the mid 1800′s and served to function until the mid 1980′s when it was finally abandoned by the State. I was fortunate enough to have some great photographic connections to gain entry shortly after the Pen officially sealed its gates in 1985. There was only one point of entry – the main Administration building – through two large barred gates, their locking mechanisms now cut off. A single guard watched the whole facility from one tiny dank windowless room near this main entry – only a small black and white TV provided some diversion from the looming silence beyond. He gave us a nod and a warning – don’t go into any of the old towers – they were unstable and don’t go into any basements – rats! That was my initiation speech into the world beyond.
The interior of the cellblocks were nothing like I could imagine. Tall 6 level stacked cells formed free-standing units in the middle of these great stone and brick buildings. The outer cages that sealed these floors had recently been removed as well as all of the locks. This is easily understandable, anyone accidentally locked in here may have no hope of rescue!
Of course, once you were through that main gate and actually entered the yard you realized how entirely futile an escape could be. The wall – a cold stark divider between yourself and the world you once knew. This was a world in which someone could disappear forever – yet so close to the present!
In spite of the aging color of these images, these shots of the Pen were early in its abandonment. It was rather eerie to see all that remained in the buildings. It was as if everyone just disappeared and left everything where it lay. One of the most fascinating buildings to explore was the old James Infirmary – the facilities hospital. X-ray plates scattered all about. Old rusting beds. Dental tools still in their trays. Crutches, wheelchairs and false limbs waiting to assist. And the ever present iron doors and gates. You began to loose count of how many barriers you’d walk through in order to move from one area to another. And the darkness made it all the worse!
And the counting goes on… bars, cages, doors… When you would initially walk into through the main gate in the Administration building, you’d pass through another small room that had a huge numbered panel on the wall with every key imaginable for every door. Even that appeared daunting! How to pick your correct combination of keys from about 500 that would get you out! Escape really was futile.
When you are young, it’s surprising how small your world can be. You look at the world through the eyes of a nascent soul. And as a photographer, you watch everything – gleaning bits of visual information to construct a vision that hopefully no one else has seen or recognized. To me, the Pen was like a huge wrapped mystery that everyone was afraid of but no one wanted to discuss. To me, it demanded exploration and some visual resolution. All adults seemed to forsake this place. To me, it demanded a voice.
And the more I explored this forbidden zone, the more stories I saw buried in the debris. Forsaking our history and others histories for a progress without substance.
This is my first run of images from my first exploration of the Old Pen. Several subsequent visits were mainly shot in black and white for less documentary reasons. Those images will follow in a future entry.