Photos listen to starkness of prison life

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When Mark Perrott found out about the planned closing of Western Penitentiary, a massive 1885 stone structure on the Ohio River west of Downtown Pittsburgh, he requested permission to visit but wasn't certain he wanted to photograph it.

He'd spent four years visiting Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia, and published some of the photographs he made of that deteriorating edifice in the well received book "Hope Abandoned" in 1999. He had also photographed Henry Hobson Richardson's imposing Allegheny County Courthouse and Jail, Downtown, as the cells were converted to office space in the mid-1990s.

"I had two jails under my belt," Mr. Perrott said.

But when he walked into Western Pen's E Block "it was the first time [a subject] didn't say look. It said listen." The walls were covered with graffiti written and drawn by newly arrived inmates who had been sent there for evaluation before being moved to other cells or institutions.

"Those words were loud and clear. Voices that said come. Listen. All the voices that will never be heard in those cells. And what do you do with that? First you collect them."

Images of those spaces and transcripts of the words have been reproduced in "E Block," a poetic if no-holds-barred book that captures a world little known to outsiders in a way that is both blunt and sympathetic. Thirty-two of Mr. Perrott's photographs are in an exhibition by the same title at Pittsburgh Filmmakers Galleries in North Oakland.

Mr. Perrott will be at the galleries for a free, public artist talk and book signing from 6 to 8 p.m. Friday.

He began his project by reading all of those words, from each cell, into a tape recorder. And he transcribed them all at home. Then he returned to photograph, with his Hasselblad 21/4 and sometimes with his large format 4- by 5-inch camera for "images that needed that camera. That meant a big camera day. It means you're going to work slowly and carefully and painstakingly."

As he photographed, "I had inside me those words."

He praised the collaborative nature of those who work with him. From Joe Petrina of Landesberg Design who distilled images and words to a manageable volume that captured the "terrifying reality" Mr. Perrott felt when he was "in that quiet" eight years earlier. To the corrections officials and guards who "poured out their stories."

"I know nothing about prison. I've never been incarcerated. I've never been arrested. I'm not an insider." But he's deeply intuitive.

Readers familiar with his work know that Mr. Perrott lives with a consciousness of integrity, whether creating metaphoric images of the demise of a lifestyle and ethic tucked within the covertly documentary imagery of the end of Pittsburgh steel that is breathlessly depicted in "Eliza," or in compelling portraits of tattooed youth or others with blazingly colored hair.

He finds those who are marginalized and gives them voice through formalized presence. But he doesn't articulate it that way. Prison issues inform him but they're "not what drives me. I just look. I just look. I make pictures."

At one point he said he'd made a New Year's resolution to become a better listener. I'd argue that Mr. Perrott listens intensely. But with his eyes.

"I love to witness and I really enjoyed this place. This architecture of incarceration."

In 2007 the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections reopened Western Penitentiary because of the growing state prison population. It now houses more than 1,500 inmates as a minimum and lower-medium security facility.

Mr. Perrott kept the Western Penitentiary images in the back of his mind, considering possible projects. And then in January of last year he read Adam Gopnik's New Yorker article "The Caging of America" about U.S. prisons and the fact that we have the most accelerated rate of incarceration in the world (reprinted in "E Block").

"Reading that kicked the can for me."

The book and exhibition followed. Mr. Perrott hopes to have a public discussion in the fall of issues relevant to prisons. "It's a conversation that seems to be on the periphery now. Not just that it is monstrously financially expensive to do this. But is this fair? Is this just? Is this the society we want to live in? What crimes can end up sending you to prison? All of these issues are part of what's propelling the discussion."

Still, "I'm not there to be an advocate for prison reform. That's beyond me. I just had the gift of being able to be there for a year. They opened the doors for me and said come and make your records."

The artist comes through when Mr. Perrott talks about making the silver gelatin prints for the exhibition in his darkroom. He's been shooting digital for some time, and appreciates aspects of that form.

But for this show "I got back to printing and what a joy. That's what photography inside me is all about. Those old silver prints. There's still something sweet about that process. The surprise of those images coming out of the tray. It's juice. It's energizing."

"E Block" is at 477 Melwood Ave., N. Oakland, through June 15. Admission is free. Hours are noon to 7 p.m. Monday through Thursday and noon to 6 p.m. Friday. Information: 412-681-5449 or


Post-Gazette art critic Mary Thomas: or 412-263-1925.


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