| || |
At Pentonville Penitentiary
H. Baden Pritchard The Photographic Studios of Europe (London: Piper & Carter, 1882), p.119-123.
AT PENTONVILLE PENITENTIARY.
A very mistaken notion prevails upon the subject of photographing prisoners. The popular idea is that the prisoners themselves are very unwilling to submit to the ordeal, and usually make all sorts of difficulties and disturbances, sometimes not easily over-ruled. Strange accounts have been published of cunning devices and ingenious tricks practised upon convicts in order to secure a photograph of their features; and we remember seeing, not long ago, a talented picture, the subject of which was an unwilling sitter maintained in position by a couple of stalwart warders, while the photographer did his worst, or rather his best. Such representations work, from the nature of things, a marked impression upon the public mind, and hence is due the impression that the photographing of prisoners is peculiarly troublesome and difficult. But it is the exceptions that the public hear about, and not the ordinary operations.
No doubt obstreperous criminals are met with, from time to time, and no doubt, too, the photographer has often his work to do over and over again ; but some little experience has shown us that a more docile body of sitters than our convicts do not exist. We do not say this because, as photographers, they are easily satisfied because they never offer a remonstrance or suggestion never ask to see the negative and, above all, do not importune for a second sitting. But, so far as we have seen, they sit quieter and steadier, and are more ready to fall in with the exigencies of photography, than their brethren in freedom.
Pentonville Penitentiary is the largest establishment of the kind in England. At the time of our visit there were eleven hundred prisoners within the walls, and a much larger number can find accommodation if necessary. Every man sentenced to penal servitude comes to Pentonville, and the first nine months of the period of his conviction he passes there. It is during this period that he is photographed, arid the photographic records of Pentonville thus include every man in the kingdom sentenced to penal servitude. There is the same strict watch and vigilance at entrance and lodge which we described as existing at Millbank. There is the same military discipline among the warders the same grey monotonous appearance about the prisoners. Millbank had ivy and shrubs as its principal ornament; at Pentonville, it is the green grass plots upon which the prisoners rest their eyes for relief.
So that these green spots may exist within the tall sombre walls, grass is grown in the exercise squares, and circular paths of asphalte, some two feet wide, appear like gigantic rings one within the other. The prisoners are at exercise at this moment, and we can see them from a window in the governor's room, walking round and round the green an outer circle and an inner circle of them, a warder on a raised 'platform looking on. The men are closer together than at Millbank, and step out with military precision, and for the most part with jaunty air and elastic step ; some even smirk and smile as they catch sight of us at the window; swinging their arms and wagging their heads, there are not half-a-dozen who appear dull or dejected. Perhaps it is the bright sunshine that pours down upon them in their roundabout tramp. One poor fellow walks to and fro in a corner by himself ; he has a wooden leg, and cannot keep up with the brisk march of his fellows.
On our way to the studio we pass through the central hall of the prison, the lofty white walls rising sixty or eighty feet on either side; tiers upon tiers of cells, having access to light iron galleries, one over the other, run the length of the hall, which is spanned at intervals by iron bridges. Warders are posted everywhere, in vestibule, gallery, and bridge. We look into one of the cells ; it measures, perhaps, 12 feet by 8 feet, and contains a hand-weaving machine, at which the prisoner works. The cell is whitewashed, is very clean, and lightened by a window some nine feet from the floor.
The governor is good enough to show us the tailoring shop, the shoemaker's shop, the laundry, the infirmary (where a dozen poor fellows are lying in bed, but as comfortable, apparently, as they would be in any hospital in London), and the kitchen, where huge boilers and stewpans are all attended by convicts. It is suet pudding day to-day, the only day in the week when there is no meat; but the governor says it is a favourite meal, for all that, and we are invited to taste the pudding a pound block like a tinned loaf which is made of whole flour, and served with the same weight of potatoes.
Universal silence reigns everywhere in kitchen, workshop, and yard, for a prisoner is reported if he so much as opens his lips. During the whole of his sentence he is forbidden to speak to anyone but the warders, and these, as we enter, salute the governor, and immediately call out their brief report without waiting for any invitation to do so.
The photographic studio is on the second floor of a solitary building in one of the yards, and has been built by someone possessing a knowledge of photography. The days are long since gone by when a wooden bench in front of the prison wall was the only convenience at the photographer's disposal. The glass room is, however, far from perfect, for not only is the aspect faulty, but the skirting-board rises too high to permit of a good side light. Indeed, when the prisoner sits down to be photographed, the line of light from the side is above his head. The consequence is, the top half of the studio is very light, where the sitter is not, and the lower half, where the sitter is, comparatively speaking, in shadow. But the photographer, who is at present entrusted with the work of taking portraits, is fortunately clever enough to combat with some success against the existing drawbacks, among which may also be cited apparatus that leaves something to be desired.
Six convicts file into the studio attended by a warder. They remove their caps, and sit down in a row on a form ; in grey jackets and knickerbockers, with shaven faces and cropped hair, they look like big school boys. One of them takes up a narrow black board, some six inches wide, and proceeds to write very neatly in chalk the number and name of the first sitter, the board being then placed above the man's head when his picture is taken. He sits on a high-backed chair, and with no head-rest remains perfectly still for the seven seconds the exposure lasts. "Look at those bottles in the corner," says the photographer, briefly, so that the man may turn his head a bit; and then the lens is uncapped. A double carte plate is used ; but the men are so steady that rarely is a second negative taken ; another convict takes the seat, and the narrow black board above the head is reversed, the back bearing the second man's name and number.
While the double plate is being developed, and another put into the slide, there is time to clean the black board, and put upon it two other names. There is no speaking; the convict simply pulls out of his jacket pocket a wooden tablet bearing name and number, and this is copied.
"Look at those bottles," repeats the photographer, rather sharply, to his next sitter, for the man has not heeded the first request; "and put your chin down." The sitter smiles faintly, but does not obey. Ah! Here is a refractory prisoner at last; we are glad of it, for we shall be able able to see how matters are managed. But we are disappointed. "He is deaf," says the warder, who no sooner comes forward and explains to the sitter, than the latter is all obedience.
According to the regulations, every prisoner's head should be depicted an-inch-and-a-quarter in length, but this is only taken as an approximate size. The photographer does better than measure the head every time; he takes every one of the same proportion; that is to say, the distance between lens and sitter is always the same, and is never varied, a measuring rod at once regulating the interval. In this way a much better idea of the size of a man's face and features is obtained than if large heads and small were all depicted of the same dimensions.
It is necessary to produce rather hard negatives, otherwise it is almost impossible to secure contrast of any kind. The men being shaven and shorn, they present little contrast in themselves, while the dress they wear, being of a dull grey and with few folds, makes but a poor monotonous result if the negative errs on the side of softness. Under any circumstances, with the black board and its chalk writing above the head, the hands pressed close against the breast for a picture of the hands is deemed as requisite, as we have said before, as one of the face, from the fact that they are so much an indication of the man's calling and the ugly dress, a prison photograph can never be anything but a doleful result; but it is nevertheless satisfactory to find that the photographs, as photographs, have of late years been much improved.
Besides securing records of prisoners, the practice of photographing them has one other advantage. In itself it acts as a deterrent of crime. Every criminal is aware that a picture has been taken of him, and he never knows how much this may be the means of bringing him to justice if he relapses once more into evil ways. He is apt to over-estimate rather than underestimate the power of photography, and it forms, at any rate, one reason the more why he should refrain from crime hereafter when he is again a free man.