Renee Lang-Schweikle drove by the Old Joliet Prison many times and wondered what stories its walls could tell.
She envisioned art amid the rubble, a photo shoot like many she had arranged before, but this time with models draped in local designers’ clothing, with a backdrop architecturally stunning and deep in history, now graffitied and abandoned.
In December 2017, Joliet and the Joliet Area Historical Museum began working in tandem to further the preservation and mission to showcase the part of the city’s history.
“The fact that it has been here for 160 years, there is so much history,” Joliet Area Historical Museum Executive Director Greg Peerbolte said. “It’s the allure of the forbidden of what is behind those walls and what it was like to be there. Joliet has an authentic grittiness and is a blue-collar town. People want authenticity; this is real America.”
The authenticity was why Lang-Schweikle petitioned Peerbolte in the summer of 2018 to use the prison for a photo shoot. She worked all summer to secure the venue, and, in September 2018, clinched it.
“We have taken in a variety of proposals and ideas, and we take them case-by-case,” Peerbolte said. “When I heard fashion shoot, I got it right away. She wanted something cool and eclectic, but we had to make sure it was done tastefully and appropriately.”
Lang-Schweikle said many professionals were on-site. The clothing featured in the photos was from DoviArt, Mario & Jorge Designs and Sharisa Couture, all Chicago-based and featured in Chicago Fashion Week.
Photographer Kim Smith’s first shoot of the project was in a warden area, where she noticed the juxtaposition of the sunny, bright yellow bathroom and the graffiti and crumbling walls just feet away.
“It was almost too pretty for a prison,” Smith said.
Lang-Schweikle said her favorite part was the maximum security ward.
“The arched doorway was full of history, and inmates were allowed to paint murals on the walls,” Lang-Schweikle said. “They put their heart and soul into these paintings. It was creepy and eerie, but I loved the history and architecture, which almost takes over the realism of the buildings.”
In December, Elegant Magazine published one of the photos from the prison shoot. In January, Lang-Schweikle opened her own studio, called Melange Studio, in downtown Joliet.