Margaret Stratton’s photographs are, at first glance, deceptively formal and elegant. The worn and rusted surfaces, peeling paint, and architectural space all have the seductive beauty and richness of an unearthed artifact or relic. The subtle and graceful color of the split toning process further enhances the beauty of each image.
On closer inspection, the formal elegance of her images gives way to harsher realities. She is, after all, photographing abandoned prisons and hospitals. In these empty spaces she finds beauty in the natural texture of erosion and decay, but she also somehow captures pain, isolation, loneliness, and shame. In the tension between the sublime visual presence of her images and the moral consequences they convey Stratton challenges us to consider our contemporary penal system.
According to Stratton, the images in this series “provide access to places viewers might not willingly venture—either physically or spiritually. They also offer a metaphor for the enormous and deliberate toll imprisonment takes on the human psyche...These photographs argue all prisons should be abandoned and that ultimately the dilapidated facilities depicted here embody the gothic nature of imprisonment: its barbarity, its isolation, its intolerance, and its inhumanity.”
Stratton’s photographs are empty of human form, but every detail points to the evidence of human habitation. An empty barber chair sits waiting and isolated in a kind of spotlight for the next customer to be groomed. A discarded mop stands precariously propped against the wall. The head of a hospital bed is still cranked up at an angle, and the rotting, dented mattress seems to remember the last body that lay there.
There is also hope in these images and some evidence of the human spirit’s power to endure. It might be found in the light. Stratton includes the exact time of exposure for each photograph. Sunlight pours through the skylight above the barber chair at precisely 10:45 am, and we know all of the patrons of this shop experienced the warmth of the sun on their faces at this time of day, in this spot. One constant, for someone in confinement, would be the movement of the sun, keeping time with the rhythm of their daily lives.
How differently we would experience waiting and the passage of time in a prison or in a hospital ward on Ellis Island. Whether a prisoner or an immigrant, personal identity is erased when large numbers of individuals are processed and herded through an institution. The “huddled masses” of immigrants at Ellis Island had their lapels marked with chalk symbols indicating their race, health, marital status, etc., to facilitate the process of selecting the healthy and independent and detaining or deporting the diseased and the weak. Margaret Stratton has given back something of what was lost to these nameless and faceless individuals who have passed through these institutions.
After Margaret Stratton draws us in to these silent, abandoned buildings, she confronts us with futility, hopelessness, grief, and loss. We are humbled and silenced before the truth that lives on in these empty rooms—the unspeakable cruelty and futility of prison life.
Mary Lee Hodgens
Margaret Stratton lives in Iowa City, Iowa, and participated in Light Work’s Artist-in-Residence program in April 1998.