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An Eye of Silver: The Life and Times of Andrew D. Lytle

Louisiana State Penitentiary

As the 1855 map of Baton Rouge shows, the State Penitentiary occupied the geographic center of Baton Rouge. In the 19th century and early 20th centuries the prison provided labor for construction projects around the state, particularly levee construction along the banks of Louisiana’s many waterways.

In April 1890, Andrew reached his 56th birthday. His son, Howard, had joined him in business in the late 1880s to form “Lytle Studio” and, perhaps, take over the difficult business of outdoor photography. A.D. remained in the studio where he did not need to carry bulky, heavy cameras and tripods from site to site.

In the early 1890s A.D.’s daughter, Ethel, married Don B. Hearin, a levee contractor. Within ten years, the Lytle Studio had begun photographing levee construction sites. While no direct evidence has turned up yet, it is entirely possible that Lytle Studio photographed these sites, in part, because A.D.’s son-in-law held the contract to construct the levee.

On the other hand, the Louisiana State Penitentiary, sited just east of the downtown residential districts, provided the Lytles an additional source of income as photographers. The image on the right, captured in the prison kitchen, demonstrates the skill of A.D. or Howard. It also gives the viewer insight into the photographer’s thoughts.

The “ghost” in the image is not an apparition of a dead inmate but the partial image of a living man. Exposure times for images in the late 1900s could be rather long. The prisoner remained in front of the camera long enough to register partially on the film’s silver salts. Moving before his image completely obscured the window and wall behind him resulted in an eerily surreal photograph. The photographer had to have known removing the subject midway through exposure would produce this effect. We are left to wonder why he would have wanted to produce such an image.

The Penitentiary provided a good living to S.L. James, Jr., who held the Penitentiary commission for decades. His receipt for $30.00 to I.S. Osborne for capturing an escaped prisoner is the equivalent of a month’s wage for a laborer.

The letter to Governor Kellogg is a plea for clemency to the Governor. Samuel Wilson, convicted of murder at age nine, had served three years of his life sentence when a committee of citizens pled for leniency on Wilson’s behalf.

The letter to Aunt Nevie mentions that a cyclone blew down part of the Penitentiary, killing 10 convicts.

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