Hidden Alcatraz

Book review.

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This slim book of some ninety photographs presents a current documentary on the cruel, decaying prison on Alcatraz Island in the bay of San Francisco. Cruel in so many ways, from the views of both the Golden Gate and Oakland Bay bridges, from the sounds of freedom wafting from the mainland on the prevailing wind, for the views of America’s most beautiful city so close yet out of reach. It’s as if it was located to enhance the suffering of the inmates for some sadistic purpose, purportedly in the service of man. The Constitution forbids cruel and unusual punishment and while there’s no excusing the actions of those who ended up in Alcatraz, there’s even less excuse for the sheer brutality of the concept.

Clint Eastwood starred in a fine movie Escape from Alcatraz which speaks to the only successful escape, by three inmates, which shows well the inhumanity of the place. Short, sharp and well acted by all, it’s an excellent companion piece to this book, whose Foreword by Peter Coyote is startlingly well written. What sort of person has it in him to become a prison guard, let alone a governor of such an institution?

This book has current pictures, many of which show the merciful decay of this horror story, and contains many memorable images. Perhaps the most poignant is also the simplest. It’s by Peikwen Cheng, appropriately enough a resident of a prison to over one billion souls, and appears on page 40. Titled ‘Days Go By’ it shows the scratches made on a cell wall by an inmate, counting the days of his incarceration. Nothing could be simpler or more powerful.

A mix of well reproduced color and monochrome images, the book is recommended if you like atmospheric photography with a message.