500 Prison Obscura

Prison Obscura, an exhibition I curated and first showed earlier this year is making its second appearance. I’m proud to tell you it’ll be on show at Scripps College in Claremont. Specifically it’s at the Clark Humanities Museum and coordinated by the Humanities Institute. From the east coast to the west coast.

In the interests of brevity, I’ll simply reissue Scripps’ press release below. Anything you need to know about the show, the artist, the works and the curating motive you can find at the dedicated Haverford Prison Obscura website.

THE PRESS RELEASE

Prison Obscura at the Clark Humanities Museum Sheds Light on Incarceration

No country in the world incarcerates a higher percentage of its population than the United States. In fact, more than 2.2 million people are currently locked up in the U.S.—a number that has more than quadrupled since 1980. But the lives lived behind bars are often invisible to those on the outside. Prison Obscura sheds light on their experiences and the prison-industrial complex as a whole by showcasing rarely seen surveillance, evidentiary, and prisoner-made photographs.

Prison Obscura, which comes to Scripps following its successful run at the Cantor Fitzgerald Gallery at Haverford College last spring, builds the case that Americans must face these images to grasp the proliferation of the U.S. prison system and to connect with those it confines. It encourages visitors to ask why tax-paying, prison-funding citizens rarely get the chance to see such images and to consider what roles such pictures play for those within the system.

Alyse Emdur’s collected letters and prison visiting- room portraits from across the nation and Robert Gumpert’s recorded audio stories from within the San Francisco jail system provide an opportunity to see, read and listen to subjects in the contexts of their incarceration. Juvenile and adult prisoners in different workshops led by Steve Davis, Mark Strandquist and Kristen S. Wilkins perform for the camera, reflect on their past, describe their memories, and represent themselves through photography. Prison Obscura moves from these intimate portrayals of life within the prison system to more expansive views of legal and spatial surveillance in such works as Josh Begley’s manipulated Google Maps’ API code and Paul Rucker’s animated videos, which offer a “celestial” view of the growth of the prison system.

THE PROGRAMME

Brought to Scripps College by the Humanities Institute as part of a semester of programming this fall on the theme of Silence and offered in collaboration with the Core Curriculum in Interdisciplinary Humanities, the exhibition is on view at the Clark Humanities Museum from Sept. 2 through Oct. 17.

Brook will present “Prison Silences,” a public lecture for the Humanities Institute on Oct. 2 at 4:15 p.m. in Garrison Theater at the Scripps College Performing Arts Center. A reception will follow from 5:30 to 7 p.m. inside the exhibition in the Clark Humanities Museum in the Bette Cree Edwards Humanities Building at Scripps College.

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THE DETAILS, THE CONTACTS

The Clark Humanities Museum is open Monday through Friday, 9-5. For more information on Prison Obscura, please contact Amy Emmert on (909) 621-8237, email humanitiesInstitute@scrippscollege.edu or visit scrippscollege.edu/hi.

Prison Obscura is a traveling exhibition curated by Pete Brook and made possible with the support of the John B. Hurford ’60 Center for the Arts and Humanities, the Cantor Fitzgerald Gallery at Haverford College, PA, and the Core Curriculum in Interdisciplinary Humanities at Scripps College, CA.

Founded in 1986, the Humanities Institute at Scripps College presents lectures, films, exhibitions, conferences, and other events each semester on a thematic topic related to the humanities. A distinctive aspect of Scripps’ program is that a select group of students participates each semester as Junior Fellows, attending events and taking part in a seminar that hosts prominent scholars, activists, and artists who contribute to the Institute’s programming. In Fall 2014, under the direction of art history professor Juliet Koss, the Humanities Institute will explore the theory and practice of silence: voluntary and coerced, solitary and communal, literal and metaphoric. In addition to Prison Obscura, public lectures, seminars, films, and performances will take place in connection with the theme of Silence and in collaboration with such signature campus programs and spaces as the Core Curriculum in Interdisciplinary Humanities, the Scripps College Academy, the Ruth Chandler Williamson Gallery, and the Claremont Colleges Library.

Scripps College was founded in 1926 by Ellen Browning Scripps, a pioneering philanthropist and influential figure in the worlds of education, publishing, and women’s rights. Today, Scripps is a nationally top-ranked liberal arts college and women’s college with approximately 950 students, and is a member of The Claremont Colleges in Southern California. The mission of Scripps College is to educate women to develop their intellects and talents through active participation in a community of scholars, so that as graduates they may contribute to society through public and private lives of leadership, service, integrity, and creativity. 

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PREAMBLE: PHOTOGRAPHING FROM WITHIN

One of the most interesting street photographers in America right now is Gabe Angemi. He shoots daily and prolifically. He makes pictures with an iPhone, mostly, but on other cameras too. Angemi is a firefighter in Camden, New Jersey. His profession allows him to get close.

Elevated angles of passing moments in some of Angemi’s photos are reminiscent of images in the many curated Google Street View (GSV) projects. GSV projects tend to divide people. You love them or you hate them. Doug Rickard’s A New American Picture was one of the earliest, one of the best promoted and most divisive of the GSV projects. Why am I mentioning this? Well, Rickard got some flak because he drove-by shot America’s poorest neighbourhoods from behind his computer screen.He didn’t hit the streets himself, but drifted past scenes from the up-high vantage point of a 15-eyed Google car camera rig.

In his look at inequality in America, Rickard *travelled* the streets of Camden. Some of Angemi’s images may look similar but the intent and engagement is vastly different. I’m somehow reassured to know that Angemi is getting down of his rig, chatting with locals, watching the ebb and flow of energies, and shaping the city. He’s also responding to emergencies, securing vacants and putting out fires.

Angemi’s diaristic portrait of the city is raw. But it reflects a place in which 40+% of the population live below the poverty line; a city hall from which three past mayors have been convicted of corruption; a city which can’t support its own schools; and a city in which police misconduct was so rife that law enforcement was placed in the receivership of state forces.

Camden has one of the highest crime rates in the U.S. and is often described as the most violent city in America. In 2012, Camden had 2,566 violent crimes per 100,000 people which is five times the national average. Camden is a rough town, but it is more than its poverty. Angemi consistently puts the hardships and everyday events into a wider context.

Whereas Rickard simply restated that poverty exists in America, and in Camden in particular, Angemi is seeing and sharing it daily. He’s mapping change in Camden and he’s also trying to make it a safer place. That makes him one of the most interesting street photographers in the country.

Angemi pushes his stuff out on a popular but private Instagram account, @ANGE_261.

Scroll down for our Q&A

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Q&A

Prison Photography (PP): Are you always using an iPhone? Are you always shooting on the job? Or do you use other cameras and venture out other times?

Gabe Angemi (GA): Not always. But the iPhone is just always there you know? It’s super easy. Occasionally though, it sucks. I also use a 35mm Olympus camera I got from Clint Woodside at Dead Beat Club, and a couple of Polaroid cameras. I’ve been using a Fuji X100 mostly as of late.

Recently, I gave Bruce Gilden and some friends from Magnum a tour of Camden, for a few hours on back-to-back days. I can’t shoot like that; the big cameras and the assistant will never suite me. I love that it’s out there and artists like Bruce are killing it, but I’ll keep making it work with what I got. I suppose that points to why the iPhone works so well for me, it’s just easiest. My photography is more timing, perspective and place than anything else. I suppose I just never had the money to buy a camera that’s *serious*. One day I’ll get a legit one I suppose.

PP: How long have you been a Camden firefighter?

GA: I’ll have been on the job in CMD for 16 years come December. I was recently promoted out of the Rescue Company to Engine Co. 11 in the city’s Cramer Hill section.

PP: How do you take pictures while you’re on call?

GA: I take my job very seriously. Being Johnny on the spot at a fire scene doesn’t jive well with making good photos. I’ve started making photos more and more off duty. The access though — it was invaluable to get me where I could be making interesting photos.

When I was shooting at work years ago, I needed quick and easy so it never interfered with my duty or performance. Hence, the iPhone. Clearly, I can’t have a big ass camera around my neck while I’m fighting fire!

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GA: I rarely shoot on the job these days, it is illegal per department policy now. If I take a photo on duty it is with the intent of using it for a training presentation or a PowerPoint.

PP: Because you train other firefighters in fire abatement, right?

GA: Right. And nothing but harmless stuff goes on my social media. Ethical considerations are a big factor. Problems are to be avoided. I had to talk to an attorney about it extensively a few years back.

PP: When did you decide to start shooting in the city?

GA: I started shooting the day I was hired, using an old film camera. Maybe even before that, when I’d stop in a firehouse to see my dad.

Initially, I was just shooting and documenting “us.” Somewhere along the line, I turned the camera towards the city, the issues, the people, the good, the bad. It all seems so normal now but its surely not. Camden’s a fascinating place. I like to be involved in friction, and trying to solve it. I shoot the friction in places that used to be what America was all about, and still is, but for entirely different reasons.

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PP: Camden is a tough town. Lots of surveillance, lots of blocks where tensions between citizens and cops are high. How do you and your uniform and your camera fit into that?

GA: I think that collectively, the fire department is looked upon endearingly. The residents have family and friends on the job. The locals know we are not there to break their balls or be indignant. We’re just there to help.

It’s funny how most of the outsiders are the ones who confuse us with the police while were on the street. I mean, I get it, it’s a dark blue uniform, but we are clearly not the police; we do not carry weapons.

Anyone who sees us — from the corner boys to the politicians — should know we don’t judge, assume or push buttons that aggravate anything. We mind our own business, we just want to help.

I’m not dumb though, I’m not always going to fit in, and clearly I’m not going to try to fit me and my camera into a spot that isn’t going to work out. ‘Round pegs, round holes,’ as one of our Deputy Chiefs always said. It carries over from my career to my art.

Tensions are indeed high, and yes, the city is heavily surveilled. The municipality and county had acquired some state of the art detection and monitoring equipment by way of federal grants. The whole city sometimes feels like a prison. Cameras are everywhere, and there’s now a shot detection system that can pinpoint gunfire down to a city block.

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GA: Tensions aren’t necessarily a consistent thing, but more like an ebb and flow depending on what’s going on in a particular part of town. Some spots are always hot, others rise and fall. I’m no authority mind you, and I won’t claim to be an aficionado on the vibe on the street between citizens and the law. I pay close attention, but I’m not in any position to really know anything about the police and their plight. It’s not my job. All I really know about them is they have a tough job, and it’s damn dangerous. So is ours.

PP: What’s the reactions of the locals?

GA: My camera gets me smiles, waves, fun poses, friends, conversations and past barriers or preconceived notions. It also gets me dirty looks, threats and projectiles. Obviously, I prefer the former, but just like my job, I take the good with the bad.

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PP: What’s your approach?

GA: I ask sometimes to shoot, sometimes I don’t. I build relationships with people I meet on the street when I’m working and try to create a bond or trust so that I can go to their space and photograph them. Sometimes it takes time, other times it can go down right away. Personalities abound; it’s very cool.

PP: Is Camden been talked about, written about, and/or depicted in the right ways?

GA: No.

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PP: You’ve a professional experience of the poverty, disrepair, vacancy and the destruction/burning of houses. Can you describe what you’ve witnessed in your work and how you’ve secured and watched properties burn never to be replaced? It seems your job — in real time — has tracked the decline of Camden.

GA: Many of the buildings I was shooting initially for teaching purposes are no longer standing. Anyone that does what I do for any length of time should start to inadvertently become aware of the developing issues and predict whats coming or whats soon to happen. I’ve watched the city disappear over the last 16 years. When you drive around and see vacant lots, you become aware that it was once a thriving community, with street lights and brick and mortar row homes lining the sidewalk. People lived here.

Now, whole stretches of fenced in empty lots do not even have the fences anymore, they have been torn out and cashed in at one of the many local scrap yards. You can hear huge sections of fence being dragged through the street — day or night. The sound of hammers and improvised hacksaws emanate from behind rows of boarded up windows, working to remove any type of metal with a high price per pound. One can often smell gas leaking from stolen basement pipes in vacant buildings, thieves are disinterested in even turning the gas petcock off. Used tires are everywhere, lining the streets like weeds. Plastic bags from the bodegas blow like urban tumbleweeds.

PP: Extreme poverty.

GA: At work, When we are out preplanning vacant row homes, we see needles, used condoms, the insides of ball point pens, lighters, baggies, piles of clothes, stacked mattresses, tinfoil “sculptures,” shit buckets, piles of feces in corners, the carcasses of what would have been a pet in the suburbs … I could go on with this list for a half hour.

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We speak to the neighbors, the mail man, the utility provider, squatters, prostitutes, everyone. We just assume the time is coming, you can just sense when a particular spot is going to burn. Then you’d catch the house, or the block, or the building, you turn the corner in the rig at 3am and the street is lit up like your on the surface of the sun.

Its always astonishes me, how it works. Not all of my peers are as tuned in I suppose, or they just prefer to ignore it. That would go for fireman working in any socioeconomically challenged urban city…

But, I think my artistic tendencies and growing up on a skateboard led me to observe closer. I can sorta relate a bit better, growing up in counter-culture mindset. I used to skate, bike, walk or drive around Philadelphia looking at everything from a skateboarding perspective. How could I creatively use the landscape to have fun on my skateboard? Now, I do the exact same thing, but in terms of forcing my way in and out of structures, in terms of understanding who or how many people might be living in a building that is supposed to have no one living in it. I’m constantly training myself to get a better understanding of how poverty affects people out here.

Where are they at? What are they willing to do or endure. I feel that everyone [in precarious or vacant houses] are my responsibility regardless of their job, tax bracket, or societal position. So I pay real fucking close attention and decide what I can and can’t do to make a difference. It’s best to see things up close so you know what you can safely do in the dead of night, maybe half asleep, when you need to be up on your game. We don’t get to warm up. We go full throttle, from a stand still-ice cold position.

The work kills our bodies. We might as well be the buildings were in and out of, becoming more and more structurally unsound over time. I mean fuck, I want to see my girls the next day too, so theres always this friction. I’m not sure exactly how to articulate what I see there, but its fascinating. Its also predictable and above anything else, a travesty. Sitting back is bullshit.

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GA: I always say that Camden should have been Philadelphia. A lot of things and people have conspired both consciously and subconsciously over time, both with premeditation and without, to make this place what it is today. There’s so many issues its overwhelming.

I talk to the folks next door or nearby to where we are operating. It’s heartbreaking. Hearing a woman tell me she’s got kids in her house three doors down from where we just put a fire out. They knew it was coming, they saw squatters in and out, they saw addicts using the houses to get high and shelter themselves. They have perpetual anxiety about not if but when [their place might burn down].

There’s a documentary film called Burn, and one of the featured guys in it has a great quote, “I wish my head could forget what my eyes have seen during 30 years of firefighting in Detroit.” That poor bastard has seen some terrible things. I wish I could say I, or any of the guys I work with, were any different. This job can mess your life up, I watched it do it to friends, both mentally and physically. It’s a battle for sanity. We’re getting kicked from all angles, BUT I owe everything I have to the City of Camden Fire Department, and I try to earn that shit every time I go to work, and every time I take, or teach a class. We work hard for what we get, we do a great job, and I’m proud of the work we do.

Camden civilians see more fires than most fire departments.

PP: Fire is a symptom of poverty, right?

GA: I believe so. Our workload is indicative of that. It’s the same in other depressed communities — Detroit; Gary, IN; Flint, MI; Jackson, MS; Stockton, CA; East St. Louis; Bluefield, WV; Baltimore; as well as sections of Philadelphia, Chicago, Oakland, New Orleans. There are so many places dealing with poverty. It would be hard to argue that fire isn’t tied into a cycle of poverty.

PP: What do you colleagues think of your photography?

GA: I’m not really sure! I struggle to keep it separate, and I struggle to combine it. I have a lot of support from guys I spent years of my life with — they support me and it, even if they don’t get it. I’m sure there are guys who don’t know me too well who are not feeling it or very receptive. Some guys have talked to me about it and now understand. All I can do is keep on being me. I’m not looking to hurt, upset, take advantage or manipulate anyone. I want to throw-up when some one says I’m exploiting people. I’m far more invested in this town and its people.

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PP: What’s next?

GA: I’d like to make a book, Pete. One of these days, I hope to put together a book dummy.

I would also like to do shooting elsewhere. I’d love to find a grant that would allow me to do what I do in Camden, in other cities. I could go hook up with friends in other fire departments and make photos.

But honestly, I’m trying to adjust to a new role in my job. And be a father to my young daughter. My wife is soon to give birth to a second daughter, so time and energy are harder and harder to come by!

Hopefully next year, I’m going to find myself sitting on the co-op board for Camden FireWorks, a great South Camden artistic endeavor. Those involved hope to start some revitalization on South Broadway out of the old CFD Engine Co. 3 fire house. Heart of Camden acquired it and put a ton of time, energy and grant money into refurbishing it into artist studio spaces, gallery and printing press with a program of lectures and classes.

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PP: Anything else you want to add?

GA: I hope that no one ever interprets my opinions, intentions or photography as negative toward Camden. I’m invested here. My father was a CMD fireman for 33 years and busted his ass through two riots and decades of a fire-load that would make most of today’s firefighters quit. I feel that the city looks like it does now by some twisted and fateful design. I give back in my own ways, and try to make Camden a better place.

I can’t get by with out my family, they are the best ever! Thanks Nicole, Maria, Lillian, and Lucia. You allow me to make art, make photos and constantly deal with my obsessive nature and all that comes with it.

I owe a ton more to too many of my friends and influences to write here but they know who they are. ARTNOWNY and the Philadelphia art scene are awesome.

Oh, and firefighters rule! We are here for you.

PP: Cheers, Gabe.

GA: Thank you, Pete.

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I’m making my debut on public radio, today. The realm of tote bags, fund drives, coffee mugs and responsible public-interest reporting just got a little more real.

I’ll be one of the guests on Think Out Loud, a stalwart of the Oregon Public Broadcasting schedule. I have no idea what I’ll be asked, but I can guarantee I’ll be speaking fast, squeezing in the urgent info, and encouraging people to see the abusive prison industrial complex within our midst.

Midday, August 12th, 2014. Tune in! 

Filmed by David Hoffman and Harry Wiland.

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Today, the Philly Mag published a leaked document about the devastating decline in newspapers. It was created by Interstate General Media, owners of the Philadelphia Inquirer. It showed massive slumps nationwide but particular downturns in the fortunes of Philadelphia’s newspapers.

The slump has been rumbling on for over a decade now but the details in the leaked document make Will Steacy‘s project Deadline even more timely. Steacy is currently raising money to make a photobook and here’s why I think it deserves your support.

DEADLINE, by WILL STEACY

I was once Skyping with an artist on a residency in Europe. During the call, in the background, Will Steacy‘s head popped round the open door. Given the time difference, it was early morning for my friend, and for Steacy.

Pre-coffee, Steacy took the time to say hello. I noticed under Steacy’s arm a stack of the newspapers. Printed news from print newsrooms across the globe. Steacy told me it was his daily ritual to read, for hours, the news stories printed on actual paper. It shouldn’t have seemed so surprising, but in this era of digital information Steacy’s insistence on printed news was, in my mind, unusual. And comforting.

It makes sense that Steacy would not only notice — but also feel attachment — to the dying news daily in his once-hometown of Philadelphia. His photographs document an atrophying Philadelphia Inquirer newsroom. The number of staffers decrease, the presses go silent, the buzz of a breaking news scoop vibrates a little less.

The series is called Deadline, and Steacy is currently crowdfunding on Kickstarter to create a photobook version.

I tweeted last week that Steacy was “photographer, labor guy and workaholic” and deserving of your support. He’s worked on the series for 5 years. His father was an editor with the Philadelphia Inquirer for over 20 years before he was laid off in a round of cutbacks in 2011, and his family has been in the news industry for generations. Steacy talks of the newspaper as a form and as a bastion of an institution holding politicians, corporations and the like accountable to society as a whole. Steacy also believes the decline of the newsroom is a labour issue and more than just profits should dictate the operations of free press outlets.

Under corporate ownership every Inquirer asset is on the table in the strategy to stay alive. Ask any local, and they’ll tell you the Philadelphia Inquirer ain’t what it used to be. The focus on local coverage to secure it’s regional readership hails a goodbye to the days when the Inquirer racked up Pulitzers for fun.

The Philadelphia Inquirer still lives but it’s downsized from 700 to 200 staff, sold and moved out of its iconic headquarters, The Inquirer Building. This move, as documented by Steacy, is arguably one of the best visuals we have to grasp the size of the changes occuring now in news publishing.

While Deadline is specific to the Inquirer, the story is all too common. Large papers such as the Rocky Mountain News have shuttered completely in recent years. This devastating shift in news publishing was reflected in Philly Inquirer’s Hard Years Are Microcosm of Newspapers’ Long Goodbye, an article by my Raw File WIRED colleague Jakob Schiller, last year.

Deadline combines great images, great research, local and national narratives and a personal connection. The Kickstarter rewards are imaginative too: newsroom pencils and pin badges, and a limited edition artwork printed on the same presses that rolled out the Inquirer for decades.

Get over to Kickstarter and fund it!

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Kickstarter reward at the $25-level. Poster: “A MIRROR OF GREATNESS, BLURRED” (Edition of 50, hand numbered, signed by artist, 20″ x 24″)

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Over the course of an evening I am watching his face. He smiles, he relaxes, he shows disgust quickly, then laughs. There are so many things to keep track of. The next day I attempt to recall and I did not, as I had wished, see amalgams but instead discreet moments. There appears to be no use for the amalgamated image in recall. Perhaps this is the reason I am making the amalgamated portrait. It is an image that does not exist for me internally.

— Notes taken by Kristan Horton during production.

Ever flailed your head back-and-forth in front of the camera to catch a blurry selfie? Of course you have. We’ve all captured head-shots of seemingly maddened selves. Kristan Horton’s self-portraits are high-end versions of the blurred selfie … peppered with existential inquiry.

For his series One For Yourself, Horton faces the troubled relationship time and photography head on. Horton says a single photo is too hard to trust, so his animalistic portraits are made by combining multiple images.

“The document is never enough,” says Horton who’s discontent borders paranoia. “I need multiple perspectives to lessen an inner feeling of distrust. I think that’s why I get involved with duration.”

How can a single frame suffice? What about everything outside of the frame? What about the moment just before? Or just after? Horton prints out hundreds of images and as he flicks through the stack, configurations and blobs catch his eye.

“I’m trying to find the parts that match up and I combine them producing a neocubist portrait,” says Horton. “It was important to arrive at a result that was definitive. I keep using the word ‘solid’ [to describe the portraits]. These are heavily worked over — there’s evidence of long hours of careful collage, and yet they appear as very spontaneous things.”

Dandy

Old Master Heads

Octavius

Marty and Klaus

Jeff

Photographs are often mistaken as some sort of mirror to truth. Yet, they are static and we’re interminably moving away from every photograph ever taken; photographs don’t come close to describing the physical reality of our world. Horton’s amalgamation of image files tears each photo from its single moment in time. He uses image files as indistinguishable part of a larger artistic statement that collapses, attacks and interrogates time.

If you think of the work as navel-gazing, it’s probably because it is informed in some way by Horton’s fascination with the immediate and the everyday.

In 2010, Horton won the Grange Prize for his composite images of stacked materials in his studio. Then, I applauded the award. Horton has habitually sought to work with what is close.

“Since I’m usually living in the studio, it’s often the material of daily life,” says Horton. “Through these materials my observation and my preoccupations leak.”

The approach came undone, however, when Horton was an artist in residence in the remote west of Ireland.

“The studio was empty and at first this was disconcerting,” explains Horton. “Finally, I thought ‘If there’s nothing to work with then that’s the work.’ That’s when I grabbed the camera and took a shot of myself in this zero condition. In a sense, my reflexes kicked in and I designated myself as the raw material.”

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Chatter

Sligo Heads

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Monkey

From the solitary studio, Horton went on to make work on the subway in Berlin, in a backyard in Ireland, a kitchen in Canada. Wherever. Whenever. He makes portraits of others too.

The ease with which Horton fired off a hundred shots contrasts to the hard slog in post-production. The relationship of parts is not unlike cells used in drawn animation says Horton.

“A stack of clear sheets with parts of the character on each sheet,” he describes. “Looking at it from the top you just see the character together. I’m looking through the stack and trying to find where moments in time fit together.”

Fascinated by Kurt Vonnegut’s characters the Tralfamadorians who exist outside of time and by the early science fiction stories of Ray Cummings, Horton is wondering what it is to get beyond, outside of, or on top of time. He knows it’s a fruitless charge but the effort and discovery involved in pushing photography toward an impossible premise is reward enough.

“The combinations of images are without an end. To feel any kind of satisfaction under this condition I have to at least engage, and to engage until exhaustion.” he says. “Not exhausting the subject, but exhausting yourself; an exhaustive attempt to stay in step with the complexity.”

The tortured results bare resemblance to Francis Bacon paintings. A comparison Horton is quite happy with.

“Bacon once said, ‘Technique is always dissolving. The technique of recording has to all the time be remade. It’s like a continuous invention to record a fact.’ I feel the same way,” explains Horton. “I was just trying to satisfy thoughts about a state, and the result ended up looking like something out of Bacon’s oeuvre. It didn’t upset me to arrive at that.”

And the title, One For Yourself? How did he arrive at that. Sat at a Berlin Hotel Bar, Horton explained to a fellow drinker that he was working on a project that dealt with time and the self. The companion responded, ‘One for yourself, then.’

As a title, “it seemed sympathetic to the altered state of these portraits,” asserts Horton.

One For Yourself is about Horton, and of Horton, but the way it vies with the prevalence of single-shot selfies, it might just have technique for us to borrow in the description of our own time … and  our own states.

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BIOGRAPHY

Kristan Horton was born in Niagara Falls in 1971. He lives and works in Toronto. Horton uses a variety of media — including but not limited to photography — to elaborate on the ways in which movement is represented, and the ways in which things are generated and regenerated. Horton studied at Ontario College of Art and Design and the University of Guelph, where he received his MFA in 2007. Preoccupations since the 1990s include the consumption of texts and mass media, the representation of simultaneous and rotated scenes, and the visualization of power generation. Horton is well known for his photographic series Dr. Strangelove Dr. Strangelove (2003–2006), for which he recreated scenes of a Kubrick film using items from his studio. Recent photography is in a neo-cubist vein; for his 2009 series Orbits, Horton presented photos that layered multiple, rotated views of scenes from his studio. In 2010, Horton won the Art Gallery of Ontario’s Grange Prize for contemporary photography and was included in the National Gallery of Canada’s Canadian Biennial.

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Two months ago, I published a conversation with Lorenzo Steele, a former NY City Correctional Officer who now gives community talks and makes pop-up street exhibitions of photographs from during his time on Rikers Island. Steele wants to impress upon communities and particularly youngsters how violent jail is.

Steele has produced a video to promote his ongoing work with Behind These Prison Walls. a group he founded to inform, educate, and empower individuals and steer at-risk youth away from the criminal justice system.

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‘Claudia. 4 years’ © Julia Schönstädt

Statement of Being by Julia Schönstädt is a series of portraits and interviews with prisoners in Germany. According to Fotografia Magazine — which is running a series of six portraits currently — Schönstädt’s aim is “to dispel the stigma of the criminal and simply make the subject human.”

Schönstädt has worked with subjects of different age, gender, race and criminal prosecution. Some are sympathetic characters, others less so. Three women in their fifties are  addicted to drugs; two see it as a problem, the other not. Harry is only 23 and doesn’t really seem to care if he goes back to prison or not. Then there’s the older guys who seem to be reforming themselves or aging out the game.

Most of the statements are insightful and honest. For example, when asked if prison helps people, Claudia (above) weighs her owns needs against those of others. There was positives for Claudia in the mere fact she was forced to come off drugs, but she accepts without that small mercy, prison is roundly a tough, tough place for most:

I know that I was in a personal situation where prison gave me space to breathe at first. If I would be torn out of my normal life now, and that can happen to anyone, that they get falsely accused, I would probably find that very traumatic. You are very helpless. You have very few possibilities to influence or shape things. You are completely dependent on the good will and concession of the officers. And part of it is also always luck, depending on what kind of people you will be put together with, and the groups that form. I think for a person who isn’t in an emergency situation as I was in, this is very dark.”

In every case, Schönstädt does a good job of revealing the interviewee. I suspect the excerpts are taken from longer conversations allowing Schönstädt to focus on the meat of the message. It’s a well-made project. But I am not without criticisms.

Schönstädt asks “Are You Ready To Listen?” but the query “Are You Ready To Look?” seems as appropriate.

Within in her presentation of both text and image, Schönstädt’s question seems to sideline the importance of the image . (This is not to say that we cannot conceive of a metaphor of “listening” to images, but for the purposes of my argument, I think it’s useful if think of listening as something related to written, read and spoken words.)

The question elevates the words of her subjects. Great. I’m all for portrait sitters having a platform to speak in their own voice. But I get the sense that here photography is used as filler and that the B&W portraits behave as illustration to the words, and as supplement. This is, of course, sad. We know photography can do many things and, I believe, it can be an activating agent in a project. In a purported photography project such as Statement of Being it absolutely must be activating.

But are we ready to look? When I do and inspect Schönstädt’s portraits I’m left wanting. They’re flat.

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‘Volkert, 13 years’ © Julia Schönstädt

Now, we all know how difficult it is to make a good portrait, but these are so tightly cropped and made monochrome, I feel like I’m looking at a really earnest effort by an artist to depict someone, as opposed to looking at that someone. Schönstädt’s politics are aligned with mine and her use of multiple media is praiseworthy, but I don’t feel she has managed to do what great photography does, which is to get out the way of itself. Proximity doesn’t always mean intimacy.

I wonder if Schönstädt made the decision to get close so that she could remove evidence of the prison environment from her pictures? To give her subjects best chance at presenting as a person first and not as a criminal as default? I understand the urge but it’s not necessarily a solution. Nor is it necessarily a problem. For example, Robert Gumpert has used B&W imagery but drawn back and made the most of sterile pods in the San Francisco jail system to make compelling portraits. In short, I’d like to see more variation in Schönstädt’s portraiture.

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‘Oliver, Life Sentence’ © Julia Schönstädt

I’m currently writing an essay “How To Photographs Prisoners Without Shaming Them.’ Most of the essay focuses on pairing photography with other media. In some bodies of prison portraiture it is either stated or obvious that the photographer collaborated with the subject over the composition and presentation. Given that Schönstädt’s portraits are identical in direction, I wonder if this was the case?

I am not saying Schönstädt doesn’t respect her subjects the opposite is clearly the case, but photography is more about the viewer than the practitioner and we must always be aware of existing stereotypes and prejudices when making photographs. The audiences’ reaction trumps the author’s intent. The audience’s reception is what defines a work ultimately.

Take the above image of Oliver as an example. Some might read his face as mischievous. Others, no doubt, will read it as menacing and devilish. I don’t think the appearance of a sinister looking male helps win sympathy. This is tragic for a project which is wholly sympathetic to the prison population.

Oliver speaks frankly and sensibly:

I became violent very early on. First there were money-related crimes starting at 7 or 8 years old. Violence came a bit later, but when I was 7 or 8 years old I stole and so on. Unfortunately, it wasn’t until I was 22 that I was held responsible for the first time.

It really struck me that something wasn’t right with me or with my story when a great deal of my family passed away – my grandfather, grandmother, and father [after being imprisoned]. I was married then and my wife divorced me. She stayed with me for 5 years but then she got to a point where she couldn’t take it anymore. And all that lead me to think something isn’t quite right here. Then I went to see a psychiatrist and got even more reasons to think about everything.

I had relatively little empathy for people, that’s just the way I grew up. I was raised in a violent environment. But that doesn’t mean that I was consciously punished by being beaten, more in a way you would also train a pitbull. […] I didn’t feel like that was something that wasn’t okay. I experienced my childhood as something really nice. Only through a person from the outside, I realised that it wasn’t all that normal, the way I grew up. And through realising that, I was able to reflect much better.

Oliver is in full grasp of his antisocial behaviour and has made steps in therapy to address it. He’s locked down for life but trying to improve himself. He is not devilish. How do I know this? Again because of Schönstädt’s keen efforts. Listen to Oliver speak in the video below and ask if the mood and personality of his still portrait tallies with that of the video portrait. Are we ready to look?

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