Sean Kernan’s noirish photo essay on prison life was not the result of careful planning, research or even an interest in issues of incarceration.
It was a crime of opportunity.
His images evoke a moody B movie or pulp fiction. But he swears the story is true, and he has the pictures to prove it.
In 1977, Mr. Kernan was photographing a personal project on carnival workers in Ohio and West Virginia with little success. Driving home to New York slightly depressed, he passed a classic hulk of a prison. On a whim, he knocked on the door to ask if he could take some photos.
Now, here it comes: The warden let him in.
“I have no idea why,” said Mr. Kernan, now 69. “The odds against me getting in was enormous.”
So, the warden didn’t mind if people saw what the prison was really like. But there was one problem. Quite a few guards were out sick that day. Could a prisoner be his guide?
Mr. Kernan was uncontrolled, unsupervised and with his own fixer and translator.
Within a few hours, he knew he had “stumbled into another universe.” He kept arranging to go back. And the prison kept letting him return.