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Ben Shahn, studies for Riker’s Island Penitentiary murals, 1934-1935. Photographed by Walker Evans. 

All gelatin silver prints, donated in 2000 by

Bernarda Bryson Shahn to the Harvard Art Museums/Fogg Museum.

A selection of photographic records of now lost large scale studies by Ben Shahn for murals intended to be installed at the new ‘model prison’ of Riker’s Island in 1935.  Although typical of Shahn’s work documenting the Great Depression, his murals were deemed too political for Riker’s and never installed. From top to bottom they show:

1) Down and out in the big city – the conditions leading to crime. #P2000.57 

2) A typical scene from a Southern US labor camp, meant to show the barbarity still practiced in American prisons – the implication being that Riker’s was a ‘new deal’ for inmates. #P2000.48

3) Prisoners in stalls, possibly at a work site. Again, another example of something that shouldn’t be happening anymore at a penitentiary. #P2000.47

4) A black prisoner being giving corporal punishment – that is, being tortured – at a public whipping in Delaware.  These displays of state power against (frequently black) bodies were actually revived in some Northern US jurisdictions in the 1930s, and like the above mural, imply that Riker’s discipline has moved on from this barbarism. #P2000.46

5) Prisoners being returned by guards to their cells from yard time.  A typical part of the prison routine, this mural appears to have been based on photographs Shahn took at the old New York Penitentiary on Welfare (now Roosevelt) Island. #P2000.55

 

6-7) Prisoners, from left to right, at school, learning automotive repair, taking tests, out in the yard, and in the back, playing baseball. #P2000.49 & #P2000.50

8) Prisoners receiving their visitors at the penitentiary.  #P2000.56

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