Throughout the span of his 44-year career as a commercial photographer, Mark Perrott, 68, has shot everything from corporate portraits to vintage billboards. But on the side, when he’s shooting for himself, Perrott is drawn to a very different subject: Empty buildings, often long abandoned after institutions or industries disappeared.
In the 1980s, his subjects were the desolate steel mills that dotted his hometown of Pittsburgh. For four years in the '90s, he spent weekends traveling across the state to photograph the defunct Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia, Pa., publishing a book of the work, “Hope Abandoned,” in 2000. And in 2005, when Perrott read that the state’s oldest and most expensive prison, Western State Penitentiary in Pittsburgh, was to close that same year, he felt an obligation to revisit a familiar subject, one that happened to be in his backyard.
When Perrott first began, “I was thinking that it was another history project,” he says. Then the prison’s former warden, William S. Stickman, gave him a tour through E Block, a section of 43 cells – five feet wide and eight feet deep – where arriving inmates were held while prison staff determined their permanent housing. “It was like Bill showing off his family photo album with the crazy uncle and the kids that don’t stop crying,” Perrott says. “It was not the company tour.”
During the tour, Perrott was surprised to find that he was less captivated by the abandoned prison itself and more fascinated with the graffiti that covered the walls. To Perrott, the inmates' writing and drawings read as “a chorus of pain and hate and racism...and I felt responsible to give those voices a place.”
For several months, Perrott roamed the abandoned E Block with little oversight, photographing the artwork on the walls. Nine months into the project, in June 2007, Western Penitentiary re-opened as Pennsylvania State Correctional Institution, a low-to-medium security facility that houses approximately 1,900 inmates. Perrott later published his collection of the photos in his 2013 book, “E Block.”
“When I exhibited the photographs here in Pittsburgh, people would ask, ‘Where is this jail?’ And I’d say, ‘It’s right next to the sports stadium. It’s right next to the science center.’” Perrott says. “We just don’t acknowledge that population. It’s just the white elephant sitting in our cultural living room, and no one wants to talk about it.”