History Under Light


I never knew anything about Al Capone, the notorious gangster, except that he was a bad person, and that he was from Chicago, my hometown.  The other day I was searching for a photo related to slavery mind you and this extraordinary one, completely unrelated to slavery, came up.  It captured my attention instantly.  This is my matted version of Al Capone’s prison cell when he was at Eastern Penitentiary in Philadelphia in 1929.  According to Wikipedia, “The warden and guards at ESP gave special consideration to Mr. Capone during his stay, permitting him to hang artwork, tables and lamps, a velvet duvet, comfortable chair and an expensive radio… Capone enjoyed listening to waltzes after dinner.”


I think about this photo, my version unmatted here, in the context of the unfairness of our current criminal justice system, where millions of African-Americans are incarcerated in disproportionate numbers and for disproportionate sentences as compared to whites for comparable offenses.

In terms of process, I created new layer for each item that I colored in the cell – the straight chair, rug, arm chair, bed, picture. I used the same layer for the hutch and end table. Since the hutch was much darker it just appears as a light stain, which was fine with me.  I used overlay on all items and color burned the arm chair and rug as well as the back lamp. I played with the opacity but liked the picture best at 100%.  Finally, I had to prepare the picture for the web.  I went into image size and made sure the picture wasn’t too big to upload (more than 3M) and I selected a medium jpeg.  I saved it into my picture folder and uploaded it to the blog from there.

While there was really no suitable “scene” in this picture for a vignette, I created the one above to illustrate the technique as required for this digital images class assignment.


This is the picture that I turned to black and white – so this is where I started. It looks bleaker than the color version, but still given the items in the room, luxurious by prison standards and by some home standards!

As instructed, I began the entire process by looking at the picture.  I really wanted to give the walls that interesting look as they have in the original picture below. I also wanted to retain the lighting glow – though I had some trouble with that as well.  I used curves to play with the tones, but still the light in my version is brighter than I wanted but better than my first version after the color burn.


This is one of the original color versions of the picture from the web.  My version does not look like this version for two reasons: 1) I chose a different color palate and cropped the picture differently, and 2) I’m just learning Photoshop and had trouble achieving some effects, like the light on the left wall and desk.  I tried burning the color on the walls but that placed odd looking orange smudges on the brown parts of the wall.

So all in all this was a time-consuming but great learning experience.  I am better able to use some of the Photoshop tools.  I’ll leave readers with this question: What can we collectively do to make sure that our justice system is fair for all.  Al Capone’s cell is symbolic of the inequalities that continue to exist.




4 thoughts on “History Under Light

  1. Very interesting photograph. I have never seen it before. I think that you did a wonderful job coloring the photograph. The colors that you chose, not to be weird, actually make living in a cell like that kind of appealing. Not that I desire to be in a prison cell. It offers a rather interesting contrast to the cells in today’s society. I wonder if Capone’s cell was in Solitary? Your picture clearly illustrates why photographs and images are important in studying the past. The image in your photograph is a stark contrast to what one would imagine that a guy like Capone, himself a product of Prohibition, would get as his cell. It makes me wonder if even back then if there was a discrepancy between what is considered white collar crimes, and their punishment, and blue collar crimes and the penalties for committing those. It also makes me ponder whether or not money, and his reputation, prevented hime from being coked up like a common criminal. In any event, that is what photographs are supposed to do. They are supposed to act as a gate way to the past by inducing questions about what is being viewed. Moreover, these initial questions often lead to even more questions. You, my friend chose an awesome example. Nice job with manipulating the photo. Both cell and the vignette look great.

  2. You did a great job with the coloring of Al Capone’s jail cell! I didn’t realize that he was given special priviledges while incarcerated, but I guess I shouldn’t be too surprised. This photo looks like it was very tough to color, so it shows that you have a firm grasp on using the Photoshop tools you’ve mention. Nice job!

  3. Hopefully this one works- I tried posting earlier but it wasn’t going through!
    The picture quality is great! Also, this is super interesting subject matter. Al Capone’s jail cell is nicer than many people’s flats in New York. This picture has so much detail and would take quite a while to color so I appreciate your color pops in your colored photoshopped photograph of the jail cell. Good work

    1. Thank you, Kaitlin. It worked! I guess it just doesn’t always notify me by email. I’ll check into it. Yes, I agree. I could not believe how nice this cell was; what money can buy even in prison. Since I had to work on it for hours I chose to work with colors that I like since this was a class assignment – but I guess in this day and age everything on the web is real so maybe I should have considered that more. I think someone commented on this – color choice – I have to go back and read again. Looking forward to reading yours!

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