Florence, Arizona isn’t really the kind of town people think of going to for a vacation. Home of the Arizona State Prison complex — a sprawling mass of electric fence, surveillance towers, and cell blocks, Florence is the kind of town you drive through on your way to somewhere else. As you approach the town, roadside signs warn you “Do not stop for hitchhikers” because, well, you know, the hitchhikers are probably convicts who managed to escape the electric fence and surveillance towers.
I’ve driven through Florence many times. There is not much to note while driving through town other than a lot of trucks, a handful of trailer parks, the giant yellow golden arches of a McDonald’s, a Circle K, and what seems like miles of prison fencing surrounded by dirt and a few palm trees. My experience of Florence consisted of stopping to use the bathroom at McDonald’s, then hitting the road and continuing my drive through town.
This past January, my photography collaborator Mark and I decided that we wanted to “do Florence” for one of our photography trips. Both of us appreciate the aesthetics of the banal, the industrial, the State, and the ugly, so we thought Florence would make a perfect town to capture a side of life that usually goes unnoticed in the annals of “art.”
It was Friday evening when we hit the road for the prison town. We drove down the dark stretch of Highway 79 as the town approached. The prison was lit up at night giving an eerie glow. The full moon hovered like just another spotlight lighting the complex. I gasped with the beauty and horror of the sight. The science fiction of the future is now. I said, “We must stop and take photos of the prison at night. It’s so amazing.” Inside my head, however, I felt the claustrophobia of being locked inside such a place. I thought of the articles I’ve read about the overcrowding of the prison, bodies stacked next to bodies in this institution of the State for human storage.
It was late, and we had to find a place to stay for the night before we could stop to shoot some photos. We passed the Blue Mist Motel located right across the street from the prison. The place seemed so cool and retro from the outside. Decorated in glowing blue, it was like the perfect picture from a vintage postcard. Certainly the Blue Mist does make it seem like Florence is the ideal vacation destination. The only problem is that that State prison is right across the street. We thought we’d drive around town and explore our other options. Sure, the prison has its aesthetic appeal, but we weren’t sure we wanted it to be spitting distance from our bed.
It turned out that the Blue Mist was our only option. Unless you’re willing to stay in a chain — and we would find that far more depressing that a depressing dive motel — it’s pretty much the Blue Mist or nothing. So we pulled in to get a room. We stay in a lot of dive motels, and we know how much they cost, so when the guy at the Blue Mist told us a room was going to cost 80 bucks, we were shocked. But we were in Florence. It was closing in on 10 p.m., and we needed a room for the night. We shelled out the 80 bucks and got a room at the Blue Mist.
I guess that’s how things go in towns like Florence. When your sole “industry” is a prison, and loved ones want to visit their families who are locked up inside, they’re going to need a room to stay in for the night. This is a place where desperation meets the State. You can get away with charging 80 bucks for a room in the middle of nowhere with nothing but the view of a state prison outside the window.
It was late, but we wanted to experience Florence at night, so we headed downtown to shoot some photos. The whole place had a creepy, sterile feel. Every single place we photographed seemed to be emanating a sense of surveillance, like it was stitched into the cushions of chairs and nailed into the wood paneling on the walls. Sure, the places were empty, but everything still seemed to have its eyes on us.
Nothing downtown was open but the local liquor store, which was doing good business on a Friday night. In a town where most of the residents are cops, prison guards, ex-cons, or the family members of prisoners, liquor is good business.
The only beauty parlor in town kept its lights on all night, like it was wearing a pretty dress all day and night insisting that something could actually be pretty in this town where ugly is the only pretty you’re going to get. Pictures of hairdos hung on the wall as if a permanent and a hair coloring would fix everything.
We wandered the back streets, and the sense of menace and surveillance grew. It’s like the whole town was under constant watch by “Big Brother.” We shot photos and appreciated the minimalist aesthetics of the State imposed on a shit-poor landscape.
After a while, the sense of foreboding and emptiness combined with the presence of the penal system that saturated the town became claustrophobic. We couldn’t shake the sense of being watched even when there was no one watching.
We decided to head back to the safety and privacy of our room at the Blue Mist, but not before stopping at the prison to take some photos of it at night under the full moon. We parked across the street and walked across a giant dirt lot. We walked right up to the electric fence and began shooting the prison with our cameras. I tried to capture the fence, the surveillance tower, the massive surreal quality of theState prison complex at night under the full moon. We knew as we were walking across that dirt lot that we would be suspect. We experienced no shortage of paranoia and unease as we held our cameras right up to the fence. Because the State works that way, makes you feel like it can put you on the other side of the fence at any time. We were standing at the epicenter of State-sanctioned paranoia, and we were taking its picture.
I stepped through one doorway and was mesmerized by rosy light glowing through a pink curtain. I wondered who had left the broom leaning against the wall and if the glass bowl was there to give water to thirsty ghosts. Mark walked up quietly behind me and whispered, “We have to leave right now.”
I didn’t question him. The two of us quietly slipped back out the window and walked across a grass field with our cameras in hands. A police car was parked on the curb outside of the house. We didn’t turn around to watch the cops watch us.
We passed an old liquor store on our way to the car and realized we were both thirsty. We decided to make one last stop. Inside the store, a man stood at the cash register paying for a couple of six packs of beer and some cigarettes. He had teardrops tattooed under his eyes. He turned to me and told me he’s spent almost his entire life in the town of Florence. He spent twenty-five years behind bars for killing someone, and now he lives in the town because there’s nowhere else for him to go. Not at this point in his life. I didn’t ask to take his photograph.
On our way out of town, I stopped by the old house and quickly shot a photo from the outside looking in, knowing that as much as I wanted to go back inside the house, there would be no going back. Mark and I looked at each other and said, “We need to get out of this town.”
We got in the car and couldn’t get out of town fast enough. We drove down the streets of Florence feeling the eyes of the State on us as we waited for each red light to turn green. Our cameras sat next to each other in the back seat. We didn’t need them anymore. There were no more photos to take on our mini-vacation in a prison town. There comes a point when aestheticization fails and reality seeps in. It was seeping in real thick and heavy as we waited for the highway to open up, so we could leave Florence and everything it stands for far behind us. I don’t think we’ll be vacationing there again.