ERIC KUNSMAN – Penfiled, New York

Thou Art… Will Give…
Thou Art… Will Give… is a photographic survey from the first Penitentiary in the United States, which was inspired by the Warden’s logbooks from the 1830s.

In 2003, shortly after moving back to the Philadelphia area, I brought a group of my photography students from MCCC to the Eastern State Penitentiary on a field trip. It was a great photographic site. But there are a lot of abandoned spaces like that, so my first trip to the site would probably have been my last if I didn’t return to Philadelphia on a completely different class trip a few weeks later – this time, as a student.

On that trip, one of my University of Arts professors, Heidi Kyle, introduced us to the American Philosophical Society’s conservation lab. Almost as soon as we entered the conservation lab, I noticed three books titled ‘Eastern State Warden’s Logbook.’ I opened it idly…and then spent the entire visit pouring over its pages.

The Warden’s entries brought the Penitentiary to life for me. Through his words, the space now felt inhabited and connected to deep emotions – infused with new meaning. Though his writing is detached, the warden clearly got to know the prisoners far more personally than one would expect.

In Thou Art… Will Give…, I hope to offer some of the atmosphere experienced by prisoners when the Penitentiary was active. This exhibition attempts to capture some of the story, energy, and the sorrows of this remarkable space. Actual photographs of entries from the Warden’s 1800s logbooks have been blended with my photographs of the Penitentiary, to give a historical sense of both the prisoners and their treatment at the Penitentiary. I am hoping that through these images and text, visitors can share some of the sense of loneliness, hopelessness, and the desperate search for redemption that drove so many of those spirits still trapped within the walls.