The Life in My Years

An anthology of life

Monthly Monochrome: Reviving a once a month short venture into the world of monochrome photography.
(Tragic events in mid-May superseded publication of this piece)

When we think of monochrome, what first comes to mind?
Black and white – of course.

Stands to reason since that’s what we usually see represented as monochrome.

Monochrome can actually occur in any color, but the key is that the image must display one single color or different shades of a single color.

I used to dismiss monochrome as a relic, a curiosity. And then I tried to imagine the works of Ansel Adams in color. Beautiful I’m sure but lacking in the drama conjured by his monochrome photographs.

To be brutally honest with myself, my dismissal of monochrome was actually avoidance, because I’ve always felt it to be a daunting medium.

Color photography renders the world as everyone sees it. Monochrome renders the world as one’s artistic eye and imagination presents it. To put it a bit more bluntly, when presenting the world in monochrome, you’re hanging your artistic butt out for all to see.

Last month I took my Grandson Jackson on a long promised night tour of the prison on Alcatraz Island in San Francisco Bay.

I saw this as a good opportunity to shoot in color and process into black and white. What could be a better subject to render in black and white than a crumbling, spooky prison?  And better still, at nighttime.

Guardhouse as seen from the tour boat.

The Cell House


A typical cell. Five feet wide and nine feet deep. A cot, a toilet, a small stool and writing table. Nothing was allowed as decoration on the walls.


Solitary cells in “D” block. They were called “dark cells” because each cell had two doors; the inner door was
tool-resistant steel bars with a slot for food, like all of the other D Block cells, but
the outer door was solid, with a shuttered glass panel a guard could open to look
in and check on the well-being of the inmate. Each “dark cell” came equipped with
a light fixture controlled by the guards, not by the inmate.


Setting sun filters through the windows of the western wall of “D” block. Note the scarring on the walls. Those are bullet holes from the battle of Alcatraz.

The Grounds

Cell house.


Ruins of the warden’s house.


Warden’s house

The Views

The city skyline has changed since Alcatraz served as a prison. How depressing was it for inmates to catch an occasional glimpse of vibrant San Francisco or the Golden Gate Bridge? Some inmates recalled that at night, the sounds of waterfront celebrations at the yacht club drifted over the water and into the cell house.

San Francisco at night


Golden Gate Bridge at sunset

For the story of the Battle of Alcatraz, click on the link.


16 thoughts on “Monthly Mono: Alcatraz, San Francisco

  1. You made wonderful pictures of this rather gruesome prison, Paul. Black and White serves them very well. I sailed along Alcatraz during my stay in San Francisco, and I felt the island so close to the free shore was an extra touch of sadism. The images from the inside underline this thought.

    1. Paul says:

      Thank you Peter. It was a gruesome place. I don’t know what it’s like in your country but in America the theory of incarceration is to rehabilitate. In practice it’s retribution.
      If you visit again you should try to take a tour. Just be sure to book well in advance, even during low season.

  2. Jane Fritz says:

    Marvelous photography, as always, Paul, and what a compelling subject. We toured Alcatraz long ago, way back when our boys were small, nearly 40 years ago. The experience doesn’t leave one. I especially remember being invited to step into the solitary confinement cell and have the door closed – briefly. Chilling.

    1. Paul says:

      Hello Jane. My first visit was at about the same time as yours and I too spent a minute in solitary. They still do that occasionally.

      1. Jane Fritz says:

        Definitely better to stay on the straight and narrow! 😏

  3. Toonsarah says:

    A perfect subject for black and white photography (and btw, I agree with your point about monochrome not necessarily meaning B&W, in fact I’ve posted on that very topic!) When we took a tour here back in 1991 we were using 35mm film, so no option then to convert to B&W, although I guess I might fiddle with the few slides I’ve since scanned. Your photos of the cells look especially chilling in these edits.

    1. Paul says:

      My camera, a Canon 90d, has a monochrome setting that not only shoots B&W and sepia it shoots monochrome in various colors. It’s a feature I haven’t explored much.

  4. My husband I made the trip there a while back. I always said the prisoners had a “MillionDollar” view of San Francisco.

    1. Paul says:

      And many of those prisoners got that million dollar view for trying to get a million dollars-the wrong way.

      1. So true!

  5. M.B. Henry says:

    Wow these are great pictures. I visited there a long time ago – it was haunting!

    1. Paul says:

      Thank you. Now that I know what to expect I’m going to make a return trip by myself. With camera of course.

  6. Scott Blake says:

    Those photos are great examples of black and white photography and the effects it produces.

    1. Paul says:

      Thank you Scott.

  7. eden baylee says:

    Hi Paul,
    I read about the Battle of Alcatraz from your link. Really gruesome, and unnerving to see photos of the prisoners, including the two who were executed. Your pictures are strangely inviting. I’d love to visit Alcatraz when I come.

    1. Paul says:

      Of all the tourist spots in the Bay Area, Alcatraz is probably the one that should not be missed. Just make reservations well in advance.

Would love to hear from you

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