Alcatraz – A Photo Essay


When I was in San Francisco last month for five days of photography I spent an afternoon touring Alcatraz, something I like to do whenever I am there.  Being familiar with the island and history of the prison I didn’t do the usual tour this time, but rather went with the goal of creating a photo essay.

All photos in this essay were shot on the Fuji X100s, which I carried in my Fuji Travel Kit.

Please click each image to view larger!

Alcatraz has a long history.  It was first fortified in 1853 for coastal defence, with construction taking approximately 5 years.  During the American Civil War the island housed 85 cannons, and was also used as a storage arsenal.  As early as 1861 Alcatraz was being used as a prison (starting with housing Civil War prisoners), and in 1868 it was officially designated as a long term detention facility for military prisoners.  It was de-activated as a military prison in 1933, and transferred to the Bureau of Prisons at that time.

From 1934 when the first batch of federal prisoners arrived on the island, until 1963 when it was closed by then Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, the island remained a Federal Penetentiary.  This is perhaps how we know it best.


Transport to the island is done by boat, and I can only imagine what it was like to be on that short ride over, watching the island get bigger as you got closer, and knowing that the only way you would be leaving the island is when you died.


Arriving at the island you are greeted by Building 64.  From 1964 to 1971 Alcatraz was occupied on several occasions by First Nations as a form of protest.  During this time graffiti was left like noted in the picture above.  One occupation lasted 19 months.

Harkening back to the days when it was a functional prison, you quickly see this guard tower as you step off the boat:


New prisoners to the island were first prepared for their cells.  They were inspected, showered, and then provided their prison garb:




Most of an inmate’s time was spent in the main cellblock:


The cell block is divided into 4 main sections (A block, B block, C block, and D block).  Alcatraz has 336 main cells, and 42 solitary confinement cells.  At it’s height, however, the prison only housed 302 inmates and usually averaged 260 inmates or so.

Each cell averaged 5′ by 9′ in size.

On weekends and on holidays many inmates were permitted to be outside in “The Yard” for up to 5 hours a day.  As the inmates left the cell block to enter the yard they must have realized just how near, and yet how far away, freedom was.  This pano, stitched together from 7 images taken with the Fuji X100s, is taken from the top of the stairs leading down into the yard.  You can clearly see the Golden Gate Bridge through the fence, and they must have heard the sounds of the city each day.

Time in the yard was spent conversing, playing sports, and exercising.  Outside of the main cell block this was “the world” for the prisoners.

Here is a 5 stitch pano looking back at the main building:



Inmates lived in their cells and dined in a communal dining hall, but if they misbehaved they would often find themselves in solitary confinement:


Prisoners placed in “the hole” were often left in the pitch dark for extended periods of time.

Many prisoners were allowed visitation rights.  Visits were allowed once per month, for roughly 90 minutes per visit.  The rules allowed for immediate family and other approved guests, but put strict restrictions on what discussions were permitted.  Visitation was done through a small window and over the phone:


Health care (medical and dental) was provided on the island for the inmates, guards, and civilians who lived on the island.  The hospital wing, located above the dining hall, had 3 five bed wards, 2 isolation rooms, treatment and surgical rooms, offices, it’s own kitchen, supply rooms and bathrooms.

The hospital has a creepy feel to it when you view it, and adds to the overall atmosphere when visiting the island:




Alcatraz even had it’s own morgue, complete with 3 vaults and an examination table:


The vaults are visible at the back of the photograph.  The morgue was rarely used as dead were usually transported by boat back to the city.

Privileged inmates were allowed to work on the island, providing for the military by performing tasks such as sewing, woodworking, laundry, etc.  Most of this work was done in the New Industries Building, and the Model Industries building.

The Model Industries Building (3 image pano):


Even when working in these buildings, however, the inmates were always under direct supervision.  Elevated Gun Galleries were commonplace in the prison buildings, ensuring guards always had the upper hand on the inmates.  Here is the gallery in the New Industries Building:


And, looking down into the building where the inmates would be working:


Perhaps the most famous piece of Alcatraz history is the escape made by inmates Frank Morris, Clarence Anglin, and John Anglin.

Much has been written about this escape attempt, in which the three chiseled out of their cells (it took almost a year of digging using spoons to create the holes under their sinks), used paper mache heads to disguise the fact that they were missing, escaped to the roof by climbing a ventilation shaft, climbed down to the water, and used life jackets and rafts improvised from raincoats and rubber cement to swim off the island.  The escape was not detected until the following morning.  Adding to the intrigue is the fact that the rafts and life jackets were found on nearby Angel Island, but the three were never heard from again.

The paper mache head and escape route carved out under the sink:


The shaft they crawled into from their cells:

It takes about four hours to visit the island properly.  There is a free audio tour you can take, narrated by former guards and inmates, that is very good.

I highly recommend you visit this site if you are in the Bay area.  If you are a photographer, take your time while you are here – the photographic opportunities abound.

Until next time!



A week in San Francisco with the Fuji X100s

FromMandarinOriental-4 (The quintessential San Francisco view.  The pyramid building, Coit Tower, Alcatraz, and of course Fog)

Three weeks ago today I returned from San Francisco, where I spent 5 days on a photography vacation.  San Francisco is an amazing city, one I have visited many, many times.   Prior to this trip I had been insanely busy with work, family and business and this was an opportunity to be by myself, indulge in my photography, and visit with a close friend who now lives in Silicon Valley. I travelled extremely light, taking only my beloved Fuji X100s and a small travel tripod.  I will be making a blog post about that travel kit, which will be accompanying me from now on when I travel. I actually have many blog posts to make from this trip, but for now I wanted to share 20 of my favourite images I took that week.  These are in no particular order, and some will be the foundation of future blog posts! Click any photo to view larger!

BayBridgePano-13 (The Bay Bridge at Dawn.  4 image pano, stitched together in Photoshop)

 There are some cities you go to that have a soul.   San Francisco is definitely one of those places, and of course one of its most iconic landmarks is the Golden Gate Bridge: DSCF4356-15

DSCF4393-16 (The Golden Gate Bridge from Battery Spencer)

 San Francisco’s Chinatown is the oldest Chinatown in North America.  The people are amazing, and when the light wasn’t suitable for sunrise and sunset photography I spent most of my time there doing street photography: DSCF4328-14 DSCF3857-2Here is a full blog post about street photography in San Francisco’s Chinatown. I would estimate I spent 10-12 hours per day wandering with my Fuji X100s, just snapping images of things that caught my eye like this amazing staircase:

DSCF3891-3(The stairs at the Mechanic’s Institute)

I think one of the things I love the most in San Francisco is the wide variety of architecture you see.  This is the Palace of Fine Arts, built for the 1915 Panama Pacific Exhibition:

PalacePano-6(Palace of Fine Arts, 3 picture pano stitched together in Photoshop)

Fall in San Francisco is usually great, but the weather was exceptionally good while I was there.  This was taken at Baker Beach while I was shooting some landscapes of the Golden Gate:

DSCF4035-8(One of 8 frames shot on the Fuji X100s in continuous auto-focus mode)

One cannot go to San Francisco without going to Alcatraz, one of the most iconic places in the US.

CellBLockPano-17(5 picture pano of the prison yard, stitched in Photoshop.  Those steps are where people like Al Capone sat.  Crazy!)

If you do a trip to Alcatraz, be sure to go upstairs if possible and see the hospital ward.  Very creepy.


Here is a full blog post about my visit to photograph Alcatraz.

 I spent a day wandering around the west side of the city.  This is one of a series I made (see here for the full blog post) at the Holocaust Memorial at the Legion of Honor:


I’ve been to Golden Gate Park several times in the past, but this is the first time I have seen the Dutch Windmill:


Finally, I spent time at the ruins at Sutro Bath and shot through blue hour.  It was fogged in, but there were several moments where the small amount of light that broke through was magical:



 The National Cemetery in the Presidio is a military cemetery, and was a very solemn place to visit:


As was Grace Cathedral:


I spent my last evening at Pier 14, shooting a skyline looking back down the pier at the city.

Pier14Pano-19(3 picture pano, stitched in Photoshop)

My last shot of the night was a long exposure shooting across the water at the Ferry Building:


And my final view, the BART station at SFO airport after I got off the train to fly home:


Some people would argue that traveling light with only one small mirrorless camera (and one fixed focal length lens) would be limiting, but I found it liberating.  The lack of gear selection forced me to focus on composition, framing, light, and of course timing.

Much of my time on this trip was inspired by a new series David Hobby has called The Traveling Photographer.  It is available on and I highly recommend it.

As I mentioned at the beginning of this post I have several blog posts from this trip to write up.  The one thing that comes to mind as I write this though is to remind everyone about this quote:

“The way to make better photographs is to have better experiences”

I love my family, dog, friends, job, etc…. but spending 5 days by myself let me just be a photographer again.  For those of you who love to create I cannot say enough how important this is to your craft and creativity.

 Until next time!