Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Matt Goes to Prison...Again!

Tennessee State Prison

Yesterday I joined two fellow photographers for a photowalk inside the walls of the incredibly cool, yet abandoned Tennessee State Prison. My first visit was made back in May ended abruptly after I fell down the stairs of a guard station resulting in a nasty scrape on my left wrist. Thankfully, my wrist took the brunt of the fall instead of my camera. I left minutes later with my tail tucked between my legs, especially since I was there by myself and technically trespassing on state property.

A few weeks back I warmed up to the idea of going back as long as I had someone else with me, and so Sunday morning I joined two of my Flickr friends for revisit. Knowing the schedule of the guards helps, and so we had a window from 8am to 4pm to work with on the prison property. After parking inside the walls at the back of the prison the three of us opened up the camera bags, powered up the DSLR's and got to shooting. Now let me just say, this place still remains one of the creepiest places I've ever walked around. Not only is the abandoned prison 110+ years old and therefore falling apart, but it also has the best collection of buzzards and blackbirds I've ever seen grouped together. It definitely adds to the already haunting appeal this place has on anyone.

Amie V Shoots

Despite the creepiness, we instantly began our "urban exploration" by walking the walls and climbing into the guard stations atop the walls. The views from there were surreal knowing that once upon a time there were actual armed guards looking down into the yard at the state's worst criminals. This place housed some insanely dangerous criminals during it's nearly 100 year operation, including death row. Lets just say that most of those thoughts were blocked out of my mind while I walked around and inside this place. No need to freak myself out anymore than I already was, right. And so early on I returned to the infamous guard station to get some more shots of the cell block inside. Thankfully, no injuries occured, but some cool photos did. Below is one of my favs from the entire walkabout.


Anyways, we continued towards the front and was able to get inside the fenced gate thanks to the newly demolished front gate building. Granted, we had to climb the rubble to get through the gate, but that's easier than trying to squeeze through a chained gate or over the barbed wire on top. More walking around eventually led to the mischievous entry into the building itself via the side fire escape. Once inside, I was on another level of awe. The freakiness of being inside was lost thanks to my eye constantly being attached to my viewfinder. One scene that I captured really brought me back to the time when the prison could've been in operation. That scene is below.

Office Lost in Time

After exploring many of the offices inside, we found a curiously dark tunnel that led to even more darkness. Didn't stop us, though. Yep, Matt made sure to bring his heavy duty flashlight and even led the others through the wire mesh walled walkway, carefully choosing my steps on the wood-planked path into a seemingly closed off room. Once inside, there was collapsed ceilings and a spongy floor to greet us (due to the delaminated linoleum tiles). At this point I handed out the breathing masks I had remembered at the last minute before I left from home because the air was definitely not what I would consider "healthy." Minutes late I found another staircase with some visible light, so we followed the stairs to what ended up being the rooftop of the great prison. Again, normally I am completely freaked out about heights, but somehow led the charge out the rooftop door and onto the mammoth roof. From there, the sights were incredible. Off in the distance (6-7 miles) was the skyline of Nashville, which was so cool to see.


Not too much time was spent there, though, because we still had plenty to explore. Back down the stairs we went and back into the creepy, spongy floored office where we again tried to figure out what to do. Our main goal was to find a way into the actual cell blocks, and so we made our way back into the main offices only to find the one visible access point to be locked. Having no keys worthy of opening such a door we kept looking around for another way inside, which ended up leading us right back to the creepy, spongy floored room...again. Yeah, at this point I really didn't like this room. But Amie persisted we look harder for an access point via this room. And our persistence payed off when Amie noticed an "EXIT" sign on the back wall. There along the dark back wall was a semi-hidden stairwell to another level. We climbed through and over so much junk (waiting for someone of something to jump out any minute) and into yet another dark, creepy, spongy floored office room. But this time the bright light of one door welcomed us with the view of the left cell block. Woohoo! I went back to get Kim who was still back in the offices, and then we went inside the cell block.

Once inside, we roamed freely searching for that sweet shot we really wanted. My main interest, though, was the individual prison cells. More than likely finding anything original would be hard, but I searched anyways. And what I found were a few crazy prison cells including one that stood out by having a naked woman painted on the wall. From what it looked like, someone (former prisoner?) had painted a scene (Titanic movie type pose) of a woman lying on her side with bottles of wine, fruits and other stuff in the foreground. Now, this was only exposed (good choice of word, eh) only because the other layer of paint over it had begun peeling away. Very interesting to say the least since the scene made me think of a gifted artist/inmate painting a lover on the walls of his cell to remind him daily of what was waiting for him if he ever got out. Of course, there were a few others including one with pictures of Jesus & Mary, as well as bible pages stuck to the ceiling and walls. Definitely a close 2nd in the weird prison cell category.


Eventually, the heat and stagnant poisoned air got to us enough that we made our way out...all the way out to the fresh air that awaited us back at the front gate. Really, at that point we had reached our peak of creative photography and just wanted to call it a day. And so we made our way around the eastern wall back towards the car, only to stop again at the power station next door. This building housed huge coal-burning furnaces that apparently generated the energy needed to sustain such a large facility. Very cool, yet again we were low on stamina and made our way back outside and back to the car. As we rode back out of the prison walls and back into civilization we all just couldn't comment enough on how cool of an experience that just was. To know that we not only survived, but came away with a great collection of photos made it all worth it.

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