Cell with Two Male Convicts

Two months ago, I posted about how the the roundhouse panopticon at Stateville Penitentiary in Joliet, MI had become the subject of art photographers David Leventi, Doug Dubois/Jim Goldberg and Andreas Gursky.


These famous names were preceded by anonymous inmate photographers a century previous. Nearly 200 plates from the early 20th century were found by Robert Lawson, a prisoner sentenced to six years in 1969. Lawson was “assigned as an inmate photographer in the Bureau of Identification.”

Lawson: “The B of I maintains mugshots, fingerprints, and criminal records of convicts from the early days of the prison. In a corner of the basement darkroom in a few drawers of an old filing cabinet were several hundred glass-plate negatives which documented Joliet prison around the turn of the century. I spent most of my two years working in these darkrooms, producing a blend of public relations and evidence photographs for the prison administration. The photographs were used in penal publications and were occasionally released to news agencies to illustrate the events and social progress of the prison.”

“The photographs were made by inmate photographers, although their identities still have not been determined. Prison records from 1915 indicate that there were five convicts who listed their previous occupation as photographer. Reports also document that there was a room in the prison designated as the “Photograph Gallery” and that the current warden, Edmund M. Allen, had an annual budget for photographic expenses of almost $1000, approximately three times greater than that of previous administrations.”

“These public relations photographs were taken by an anonymous series of inmate photographers under official direction. It was not necessarily their purpose to create a clear understanding of what prison is and what it does to the minds of those who live there, but it was their purpose to illustrate the progressive changes which were taking place during an era of penal reform which lasted until the beginning of World War I, when public and political attention was diverted to other areas.

[My bolding]

The collection includes Workplaces, The Grounds, Chaplin, Cells, and Mugshots. A catalogue of the images is available on eBay.

The intriguing story of historical prison photography and later discovery have been reported in publications and featured in James R. Hugunin’s, 1996 survey of prison photography, Discipline and Photograph: The Prison Experience, which is the primary academic work on the history of prison photography in public domain.

Here’s a full list of related links and the list of plates.

Fascinating stuff.


Cell for Female Prisoner

Chaplin with Four Inmate Assistants, ca. 1910

Thanks to Stan for the tip.