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The Old Essex County Jail

Maureen Beitler | New Jersey, United States


I began photographing the Old Essex County Jail in 2013 and continued intermittently through the bitterly cold winter of 2018. The jail was designed and built by the prison architect John Havilland in the 19th century, who was interested in creating a more humane incarceration for the inmates. This included individual cells, heat, running water and electric lights. The jail was abandoned in 1971, but many signs of recent human habitation remain – open books, suitcases, clothing strewn about and bread hanging from a pole as if being saved for a last meal. The abandoned cells are used for shelter, but also for other nefarious purposes; syringes and condoms were among the detritus; even remnants of a strange celebration with balloons and ribbons decorating the old infirmary wing. I focused my camera on the long dark corridors that seemed to echo the fear and isolation that I personally felt being inside this haunted edifice. I thought about the many lost souls that have been confined to this jail and others - living their lives in the shadows.

Maureen Beitler is a documentary and fine art photographer. Her work explores the symbiotic relationship of men and women within the environments they have constructed and the impact that each exacts upon the other. Although the human figure is mostly absent in the Old Essex County Jail images in favor of a more abstract approach using line, color, available light and time-based exposures, their ghostly presence is intimated in the detritus lingering in the shadows. She has documented the Old Essex County Jail intermittently from 2013-2018. The photographs presented here were taken during the winter of 2018 and serve as an invitation to contemplate the layered meanings of time, abandonment, what it means to be free and what it means to get lost. She is a New York Foundation of the Arts fellow in Photography.



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