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James Fee and Philadelphia’s Eastern State Penitentiary

Cellblock with Skylight
Cellblock with Skylight, 1995
James Fee, American
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A massive architectural complex filling an entire city block, the historic Eastern State Penitentiary is located about five blocks away from the Philadelphia Museum of Art and is open to the public. The focus of interest and controversy since opening in 1829, the penitentiary was situated outside the city limits and was built to reflect progressive, Quaker-inspired ideas about prison reform. The aging and outdated facility was closed in 1971, but the building was later stabilized and it opened to public tours in 1994. The shadowy hallways and peeling paint of this unusual site have made it a favorite location for photographers.

California-based James Fee made his series of photographs there in 1995, using views of the penitentiary's storeroom, machine shop, and infirmary to record some of the left-behind objects that hint at the lives of former inmates. The artist made his negatives using a nineteenth-century wet-plate photographic process and employed other techniques to diffuse the detail of his subjects. The resulting hazy, imperfect quality of his prints suggest the passage of time and, by offering only indistinct glimpses of the penitentiary, reminds us of the many untold stories within its walls.

For a wealth of information about the Eastern State Penitentiary, including special programs and how to visit, see their website at