PLASTIC CAMERA: Alcatraz
ALCATRAZ, FIVE HOURS ON THE ROCK
Growing up, prison pictures and gangster films made a big impression on me. It was Bogart, Cagney, Raft in the moral dramas that portrayed life behind the walls and what got you there. Fortresses populated by guards and inmates, cauldrons of fear and hatred.
Visions of Sing Sing, The Big House, Leavenworth, and Alcatraz, always Alcatraz. These images filled my head. Visiting San Francisco in 1997, I was thrilled at the prospect of seeing Alcatraz, a.k.a. “The Rock,” “The Devil’s Island of the U.S.”, the place they put the “worst of the worst”.
It’s now a national park, accessible by ferries that depart Fisherman’s Wharf every half hour. The day I went a bright sun had dispersed an early-morning fog, leaving a sky decked out with puffy cumulus clouds (my photographic favorites). Picturesque, yes, but this didn’t seem right for Alcatraz. On the ferry with me was Bill, a retired writer for the Boston Globe now living in San Francisco. We struck up a conversation, and his advice to me was: “Don’t miss the rec yard.”
The ferry proceeded to the dock and we passengers made our way down the gangplank. We gathered in front of what is now the Ranger/First Aid Office, which still bears the graffiti of the Native American occupation of the Island in 1969. The ranger welcomed us and informed us that there were more people on this ferry, 300, than were ever imprisoned on the Island at one time, 266. That was many fewer than I had imagined, and somehow made the place seem a little less awesome.
Acquiring a map I proceeded up the zigzag ramped walkway to the cellhouse and around to the west side of the island, up a deteriorated stone stairway, and then through a heavy rusted doorway into the recreation yard. There it was. Bill was right, childhood memories, fears, real and imagined, flooded my head. The worn baseball diamond, the water tower, barbed wire everywhere, stone walls 25 feet high, huge stone steps, the guard tower in the southwest corner. I could picture the rifles trained down on the population, and there was the cellhouse in front of me, massive and bleak.
I got down to business, framing the water tower, the stone walls, shooting, shooting. But the weather, so picture-perfect, so bright and sunny, not right for Alcatraz, this dark institution of misfits and hard-core criminals. What could I do? I continued to shoot.
The day wore on, clicking away with my trusty Diana, trying to capture something of the mystique of this isolated place. The cellhouse, flat bar cells, round bar cells, solitary confinement, the hole, shaving station, the kitchen, library, skylight in cellblock B, the mess hall, guard towers, the officers club, lighthouse, the warden’s house.
Yes, Five Hours On The Rock was my sentence, what a day ... but was the light right?
New York, New York
At left: The Rock
Alcatraz, San Francisco, California 1997