Haunting reflections from America’s first penitentiary in RIT Dyer Arts exhibition
Eric T. Kunsman’s revealing photographs focus on Warden’s logbooks from the 1830s
Eastern State Penitentiary (1829-1971) in Philadelphia, Pa.—once the most famous and expensive prison in the world—stands today in ruin, a haunting world of crumbling cellblocks and empty guard towers.
During his 362 visits to the site, Eric T. Kunsman photographed America’s first penitentiary in a revealing essay featuring100 large format photographs on display in an exhibition spanning 11 years of work. “Thou Art . . . Will Give . . .” will be showcased from Nov. 21 through Jan. 21, in Dyer Arts Center at Rochester Institute of Technology’s National Technical Institute for the Deaf.
An opening talk with Kunsman will be held at 3 p.m. Friday, Nov. 21, followed by a reception from 4-8 p.m. A second discussion will be held at 4 p.m. Wednesday, Dec. 10. All events are free and open to the public.
According to Kunsman, the prison architecture designed by John Haviland was based on the state’s Quaker penal code instituted by William Penn, where each man or woman had to have a separate cell because isolation would give them time to ponder their mistakes and make peace with God. Famous inmates included two notorious criminals—bank robber Willy Sutton and gangster Al Capone.
“The whole idea of the word penitentiary comes from the word penance,” explained Kunsman. “I became intrigued with Eastern State Penitentiary after reviewing Warden’s logbooks from the 1820s and 1830s at the American Philosophical Society in Philadelphia’s Independence Hall. Reproductions of these pages will be on display during the exhibition as they are the basis for the body of work.
“Although the prison emphasized principles of reform more than punishment, many of those jailed for long periods of time died or went insane. In my photos, you can see pictures of the warden’s corridor, a theater stage, solitary cells with single glass skylights representing the ‘Eye of God,’ and the small doorways, which forced prisoners to bow in penitence when leaving or entering their cell.”
A native of Bethlehem, Pa., Kunsman is a photographer, book artist, lecturer in NTID’s Visual Communications Studies Department and adjunct professor in RIT’s School of Photographic Arts and Sciences, and owner of Booksmart Studio in Rochester, N.Y.
The Dyer Arts Center, located at 52 Lomb Memorial Drive, is open from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday through Friday and by request. For more information, go to firstname.lastname@example.org or call 585-475-6406.