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UPDATE, 05/14/2013: Harpers Books confirmed that the collection was bought by an individual at Paris Photo LA.
At Paris Photo: Los Angeles, this week, a collection of California prison polaroids were on display and up for sale. The asking price? $45,000.
The price-tag is remarkable, but so too is the collection’s journey from street fair obscurity to the prestigious international art fair. It is a journey that took only two years.
The seller at Paris Photo LA, Harper’s Books named the anonymous and previously unheard-of collection The Los Angeles Gang and Prison Photo Archive. Harper’s has since removed the item from its website, but you can view a cached version here. The removal of the item leads me too presume that it has sold. Whether that is the case or not, my intent here is not to speculate on the current price but on the trail of sales that landed the vernacular prison photos in a glass case for the eyes and consideration of the photo art world.
The Los Angeles Gang and Prison Photo Archive on display at Paris Photo LA in April, 2013.
FROM OBSCURITY TO COVETED FINE ART COMMODITY
In Spring 2012, I walked into Ampersand Gallery and Fine Books in NE Portland and introduced myself to owner Myles Haselhorst. Soon after hearing my interest in prison photographs, he mentioned a collection of prison polaroids from California he had recently acquired.
You guessed it. The same collection. Where did Myles acquire it and how did it get to Paris Photo LA?
“I bought the collection from a postcard dealer at the Portland Postcard Show, which at the time was in a gymnasium at the Oregon Army National Guard on NE 33rd,” says Haselhorst of the purchase in February, 2011.
As the postcard dealer trades at shows up and down the west coast, Haselhorst presumes that dealer had picked up the collection in Southern California.
Haselhorst paid a low four figure sum for the collection – which includes two photo albums and numerous loose snapshots totaling over 400 images.
“I thought the collection was both culturally and monetarily valuable,” says Haselhorst. ”At the time, individual photos like these were selling on eBay for as much as $30 each, often times more. I bought them with the intention of possibly publishing a book or making an exhibition of some kind.”
Indeed, Haselhorst and I discussed sitting down with the polaroids, leafing through them, and beginning research. As I have noted before, prison polaroids are emerging online. I suspect this reflects a fraction of a fledgling market for contemporary prison snapshots. Not all dealers bother – or need to bother – scanning their sale items.
Haselhorst and I were busy with other ventures and never made the appointment to look over the material.
“In the end, I didn’t really know what I could add to the story,” says Haselhorst. “And, I didn’t want to exploit the images by publishing them.”
Another typical and lucrative way to exploit the images would have been to break up the collection and sell them as single lots through eBay or at fairs, but Haselhorst always thought more of the collection then the valuation he had estimated.
In January 2013, Haselhorst sold the collection in one lot to another Portland dealer, oddly enough, at the Printed Matter LA Art Book Fair.
“Ultimately, after sitting on them for more than two years, I decided they would be a perfect fit for the fair, not only because it was in LA, but also because the fair offers an unmatched cross section of visual printed matter. It was hard putting a price on the collection, but I sold them for a number well below the $45,000 mark,” he says.
Haselhorst made double the amount that he’d paid for them.
The second dealer, who purchased them from Haselhorst, quickly flipped the collection and sold it at the San Francisco Antiquarian Book Fair for an undisclosed number. The third buyer, also a dealer, had them priced at $25,000 at the recent New York Antiquarian Book Fair.
From these figures, we should estimate that Harper’s likely paid around $20,000 for the collection.
Harper’s Books’ brief description (and interpretation) of the collection reads:
Taken between 1977 and 1993. By far the largest vernacular archive of its kind we’ve seen, valuable for the insight it provides into Los Angeles gang, prison, and rap cultures. The first photo album contains 96 Polaroid photographs, many of which have been tagged (some in ink, others with the tag etched directly into the emulsion) by a wide swath of Los Angeles gang members. Most of the photos are of prisoners, with the majority of subjects flashing gang signs.
The second album has 44 photos and images from car magazines appropriated to make endpapers; the “frontispiece” image is of a late 30s-early 40s African-American woman, apparently the album-creator’s mother, captioned “Moms No. 1. With a Bullet for All Seasons.”
In addition, 170 loose color snapshots and 100 loose color Polaroids dating from 1977 through the early 1990s.
In my opinion, the little distinction Harper’s makes between gang culture and rap music culture is offensive. The two are not synonymous. This is an important and larger discussion, but not one to follow here in this article.
HOW SIGNIFICANT A COLLECTION IS THIS?
Harper’s is right on one thing. The newly named ‘Los Angeles Gang and Prison Photo Archive’ is a unique collection. Never before have I seen a collection this large. Visually, the text etched directly into the emulsion is a captivating feature of many of the polaroids.
We have seen plenty of vernacular prison photographs from the 19th and early to mid 20th century hit the market. Recently, a collection of 710 mugshots from the San Francisco Police Department made in the 1920′s sold twice within short-shrift. First for $2,150 in Portland, OR and then for $31,000 in New York just four months later! At the time of the sale, AntiqueTrader.com suggested it “may [have] set new record for album of vernacular photography.”
As a quick aside, and for the purposes of thinking out loud, might it be that polaroids that reference Southern California African American prison culture are – in the eyes of collectors and cultural-speculators – as exotic, distant and mysterious as sepia mugshots of last century? How does thirty years differ to one hundred when it comes to mythologising marginalised peoples? Does the elevation of gang ephemera from the gutter to traded high art mean anything? I argue, the market has found a ripe and right time to romanticise the mid-eighties and in particular real-life figures from the era that resemble the stereotypes of popular culture. It is in some ways a distasteful exploitation of people after-the-fact. Perhaps?
WHERE DOES THE $45,000 PRICE-TAG COME FROM?
Just because the so-called ‘Los Angeles Gang and Prison Photo Archive’ is rare, doesn’t mean similar collections do not exist, it may just mean they have not hit the market. This is, I argue, because no market exists … until now.
If the price tag seems crazy, it’s because it is. But consider this: one of the main guiding factors for valuations of art is previous sales of similar items. However, in the case of prison polaroids, there is no real discernible market. Harper’s is making the market, so they can name their price.
“All in all, it’s pretty crazy,” says Haselhorst, “especially when you think about how I bought it here in Portland over on 33rd, just a few miles from our gallery.”
All these details probably make up only the second chapter of this object’s biography. The first chapter was their making and ownership by the people in the photographs. Later chapters will be many. Time will tell whether later chapters will be attached to astronomical figures.
Harper’s suggests that rich “narrative arcs might be uncovered by careful research.” I agree. And these are importatn chapters to be written too.
I hope that more of these types of images with their narratives will emerge. If these types of vernacular prison images are to command larger and larger figures in the future, I hope that those who made them and are depiction therein make the sales and make the cash.
As it stands the speculation and rapid price increases, can be interpreted as easily as crass appropriation as it can connoisseurship. If these images deserve a $45,000 price tag, they deserve a vast amount of research to uncover the stories behind them. Who knows if the (presumed) new owner has the intent or access to the research resources required?
Along that same vein, here we identify a difference between the art market and the preservationists; between free trade capitalism and the efforts of museums, historians and academics; between those that trade rare items and those that are best equipped to do the research on rare items.
Whether speculative or accurate, the $45,000 price is way beyond the reach of museums. Photography and art dealers who are limber by comparison to large, immobile museums are working the front lines of preservation.
“Some might say that selling [images such as these] is exploitation, but a dealer’s willingness to monotize something like this is one form of cultural preservation,” argues Haselhorst. “If I had not been in a position to both see the collection’s significance and commodify it, albeit well below the final $45,000 mark, these photographs could have easily ended up in the trash.”
Loose Polaroids from the Los Angeles Gang and Prison Photo Archive as displayed by Harper’s Books at Paris Photo LA, Los Angeles, April, 2013.
A cover to one of the two albums that make up the Los Angeles Gang and Prison Photo Archive.
Antoine Ealy, Federal Correctional Complex, Coleman, Florida
You all know I’m a big supporter of Alyse Emdur and her six year project Prison Landscapes, so it was great to feature her work on Wired.com.
“My act as a photographer is not from behind the lens but as a collector of images,” says Emdur. “I see myself as a mediator. These are people who have had no relationship with the outside world so while Prison Landscapes might be a very small gesture, the people who chose to be involved in this project want to be seen; they have their own agency. They want the outside world to know they aren’t the criminals they are stereotyped as.”
Relatively late in the project, Emdur resolved to visit prisons herself to photograph backdrops at a wider angle. In the space of two weeks, she gained access to 10 prisons on the East Coast. Her photographs offer context to the portraits she had already collected. In informal interviews, Emdur was able to get the perspective of the prison administrations, psychiatrists, superintendents, guards – “people who enriched my understanding,” she says.
“Prison portraits are very intentionally framed to exclude the surroundings,” explains Emdur. “They are hiding what the visiting room actually looks like. For me it is very important to show the viewer, who maybe hasn’t been in a prison visiting room, the details, and to place the backdrops in a context.”
It’s gratifying when my interest in prisons overlap with wider issues of visual culture and with the curiosity of mainstream readers.
The article coincides with Emdur’s book Prison Landscapes, published by Four Corners, London is now available. Alyse Emdur is very grateful that Four Corners will donate books to each of the individuals whose portraits feature in the book.
Prison Visiting Room Portraits, An Interview with Alyse Emdur. (Prison Photography)
Up Against The Wall: Prison Snapshots. (New York Times)
Found photo of an unknown prison cell.
The DVAFOTO interview opens with my account of my arrest and 9 hours in jail in late 2011. The HBM podcast is about a workshop I delivered in Sing Sing State Prison, New York.
It may be ironic that I’d get locked-up during a research trip that is questioning incarceration, but it’s not funny and it’s no badge of honour. My actions were foolhardy and the police officer’s actions were over-zealous.
I’ve been thinking beyond what I think about the experience (It was stupid, bureaucratic and inconvenient), and more about how I think of the experience (What insight did I gain? What interactions did I have? Who did I meet?)
Inside the release-tank were about 15 men. They were there for different reasons. One young man faced a significant bail amount for a significant possession offense while another was brought in for cycling drunk in the wrong direction of the cycle path on a quiet road. Some men were in for DUI’s and in some cases not their first DUI. Two or three slept through the hours. Others were quiet and some told stories. The younger ones were more talkative and boastful. Several tried using the phone but only one succeeded. When they found out I was in for peeing on a tree and not answering questions they thought it was lame. Lame offense, lame arrest.
A tray of peanut butter sandwiches was brought in, but not enough. Some jumped on them, others weren’t interested. I think one person got two sandwiches.
Of the men with DUIs, I had little sympathy. They didn’t seem to acknowledge that their actions were potentially lethal. For a couple of them, cash-fines, points on their licenses and driving bans didn’t seem to be much deterrent.
A few men seemed contrite. Others seemed beaten down with either addiction or repeated arrogance.
I had huge sympathy for the drunk cyclist. Maybe in this fifties. Grey hair. He thought he was getting out until the administration realised he was a parolee. The bike-ride proved a violation and he was to be automatically rearrested and jailed for a fixed term. He had a job and children. Because of a night of excess, he was to lose those things again. Sure, his behaviour could have been better, but I think the authority’s response was of excess.
I didn’t ask what they did and they didn’t ask me. It was a small space. It was very dirty but not quite filthy. We only moved our place when others left and they did so in groups of 3 and 4 throughout the hours.
Part of me wishes I’d taken the opportunity to ask some questions, tap some opinions (I may have met a great conversationalist who’d improve my thinking as much as I hoped I might improve his). The other part of me knows only an intrusive nerd would be ask out-of-the-blue questions about personal circumstance and attitudes; especially in a temporarily-occupied cell at an unpredictable time.
Two weeks later: No court appearance. No charges brought.
Why is this relevant? The arrest and dismissal of charges — actually, the incomplete documentation of the arrest and dismissal – almost jeopardised my visit to Sing Sing to carry out a workshop with attentive, challenging, respectful and curious students of the education program there.
An arrest will always feature on a record, whether or not a conviction is brought, so-told me a law enforcement employee over the phone. New York Dept. Of Corrections which administers Sing Sing knew I’d been arrested but the information ceased there. I had to scramble for paperwork (that had not been given to me) to prove I had no criminal record. I wonder how much inefficiency and potential mistakes contribute to unfair and/or heightened levels of control. Frustration must be infinite in the prison industrial complex.
All in all, I’m glad I was able to teach and learn in Sing Sing and doubly happy that Jeff Emtman was able to craft a fine podcast splicing together audio of prisoners speaking, myself speaking, music and sound. Jeff conceived of the podcast titled The Other One Percent, to broadly challenge listeners to think about prisons and solutions.
The class, as a whole, discussed many images but specifically in the HBM audio, Robert Rose, Dennis Martinez, Deshawn Smalls and Jermaine Archer talk about these six images.
The first image mentioned is the one below by Brian Moss …
“Fear, I think people would think fear,” says Sing Sing prisoner, Robert Rose. ”They can’t see what goes on in here, just as we can’t see much of what goes on out there.”
… then the three below by Alyse Emdur …
“Something needs to be said about the families who also do time. They are part of the narrative of mass incarceration, but they’re not talked about. They end up carrying the burden,” says Deshawn Smalls, Sing Sing prisoner.
… and finally, the two images below by Richard Ross of juvenile facilities.
Sing Sing prisoner, Jeremy says, “You may have a man who refused [to adhere to regulations] and this is him in this picture. You probably won’t see the man at first, but he is there.”
HERE BE MONSTERS (HBM) is a podcast audio series about fear and the unknown, by Jeff Emtman, a 2012 Soundcloud Community Fellow.
HBM has previously covered Juggalo culture; placenta medicine; train-hopping; the disillusion and resignation of a favored NPR correspondent; a children’s book about a hallucinogenic trip; and the mind-made images created by the human brain when the body and the eyes experience total darkness – a condition known as ‘Prisoners Cinema.’
I like what Jeff is doing. I’m happy to share my experiences with him.
If you’re still interested in what I’m up to, I cover my immediate plans in the DVAFOTO interview. We also talk about what bloggers can do and do do.
The Other One Percent (Here Be Monsters podcast)
Interview: Pete Brook On The Road (DVAFOTO)
A temporary gig as a set photographer took Jordana Hall to San Quentin State Prison; her heart and consciousness propelled countless return visits. She has worked particularly closely with men who were convicted when juvenile (under 18) and were sentenced to life in prison.
Hall has worked as a volunteer in existing programs; launched her own project that melds poetry, family letters, snapshots and her own portraits; and visited the hometowns and families of prisoners. The ongoing body of work Home Is Not Here is part of Hall’s senior thesis exhibition. It will be on show – beginning April 2013 – at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, DC.
I wanted to learn more about Hall’s motives and discoveries.
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Prison Photography (PP): How did you get access to San Quentin State Prison?
Jordana Hall (JH): My work at San Quentin started in June 2011. I was hired as the set photographer for a documentary (working title, Crying Sideways) by SugarBeets Productions. The documentary details the stories of a group inside San Quentin called KIDCAT (Kids Creating Awareness Together).
PP: KIDCAT is a group of lifers sentenced as juveniles, correct?
JH: Yes, you can follow KIDCAT on Facebook.
PP: They describe themselves as “men who grew up in prison and as a group have matured into a community that cares for others, is responsible to others, and accountable for their own actions.”
JH: I began attending KIDCAT’s bi-weekly group meetings as a volunteer. During this period of volunteering, I developed a working relationship with the members of KIDCAT. Showing up when I said I would, being accountable, and most of all keeping an open mind and heart while inside re-assured the men of KIDCAT that I was a trustworthy member.
Then in June 2012, I started working on my senior thesis for my Photojournalism BFA at the Corcoran College of Art and Design. I approached Lieutenant Sam Robinson, Public Information Officer at San Quentin, with the idea of starting the “Home Is Not Here” project. If I had not had the relationship that I do with the men of KIDCAT, Sam would not have been so willing to help. It really is this relationship that I have with the group that has allowed me so many opportunities to continue my work there. I’ve been going into San Quentin for a year and a half now, and have only been able to bring my camera three times.
To be granted access to San Quentin – even minimal access – requires a lot of work. There needs to be a legitimate return for the prison community. In my case, publishing my work to Young Photographer’s Alliance, posting to my website, and eventually in an exhibition at the Corcoran Gallery of Art was enough justification for the prison to allow me to continue working inside.
I never take my access for granted.
There are strict rules about what you can and cannot do, wear and say. If I slip up – even just a little – my access is on the line.
PP: Why did you take on the project?
JH: After hearing the inmate’s stories during the documentary filming, I realized that all of them were just teenagers who were dealt a bad hand. This is not to say they don’t take responsibility for what they did. They definitely do. Their stories resonated to my core; the stories would impact anyone who heard them. I left the prison gates that day realizing that they could be my brother, father, or best friend. I began to think about their families. Most of the men in the group are in their mid-thirties; they have spent more than half of their lives in prison. I thought about how they struggle to keep working relationships with their loved ones for so many years through the prison walls. That wondering led me to my senior thesis project.
Home Is Not Here documents the relationships between an incarcerated person and his family. I seek out the ways in which their relationship can be kept when there are so many barriers involved.
PP: What have you learnt?
JH: I’ve learned that the families of incarcerated people are the least documented victims of crime. Communities shun them for “raising a criminal.” There are limited resources available for them to get help. These families mourn the loss of their loved one’s free life with little to no support.
I learned the truth in the statement, “When one person is incarcerated, at least five people ‘serve the time’ with them.” I have seen family members go about their daily lives with a piece of their heart locked away in prison.
JH: I learned that letters from a child to their “Tio Miguel” (who they have never met outside of prison visitations) would break your heart. I learned that even the toughest looking men still get tears in their eyes when you ask about their family.
I am still learning.
PP: What did the prisoners think of being photographed?
JH: The first day they were most interested in seeing how a digital camera works. I am very hands-on with my subjects, and with the permission of Lt. Sam Robinson, I handed my second camera body to the guys to play with on the breaks during filming. It was both funny as well as saddening to watch their amazement at the foreign device.
The first time I went in, I asked to see an inmate’s cell. The guys all looked at each other, waiting for someone to volunteer. One by one they denied my request to see their space. We ended up going to a stranger’s cell, just so I could poke my head in from the door. Soon after, I fully realized the shame that comes over them when asked about their cells. It is the only space that is their own, but it also the cage they are locked in at night. These 6 x 12 cement cages are a place both of safety and of degradation.
After I stuck around for a year, I approached the cell situation, again. This time they were excited to show me their space. Their family photos on the wall, bookshelf with notebooks, sketchbooks, and wall markings left from previous inmates. “Stay Focused” was scrawled into the yellowed paint next to the metal bunk. It took some time and a lot of trust building for me to get on that level with them.
PP: Did you give the men prints?
JH: Giving the guys the prints is absolutely one of my favorite parts!
The Home Is Not Here project had me traveling to the hometowns of three men. I went with only small clues of what and where to photograph – “The Dairy Queen where I took my first girlfriend on my first date,” or “The restaurant named after the city in Vietnam where my family was from.”
When I brought back prints from my trips, the guys were blown away by how much had changed, and how much had stayed the same.
I was asked by one inmate to visit the grave of his grandmother. They were extremely close and she passed away while he was in prison. When he saw the photograph I took there, he began to cry. It was almost as if I had delivered him a physical place to grieve her passing.
I try to give back to my subjects as much as I can. I try not to be that photographer that comes in, gets the story, and never comes back. They give so much of themselves when they allow me to photograph them, giving prints to them is the least I can do.
PP: What did the staff think of being photographed?
JH: I never photographed the staff, although some day I hope to see some really thorough work done about the people who work in prisons. It would be a fascinating story.
PP: I agree. I’ve yet to see a photography project that suitably deals sympathetically and deeply the complex and stressful dynamics of correctional officers’ work and lives.
PP: Could photography serve a rehabilitative role, if used in a workshop format in prisons?
JH: I think a workshop on photography in a prison would be an incredible idea. These men are so introspective and have so much to offer, creatively. The documentation of life inside prison by an inmate could offer such insight for us all.
PP: Are prisoners invisible?
JH: Yes, I believe prisoners are invisible. Everything about the prison system is set up for them to be invisible, and stay invisible. To be silenced, and out of sight. What I aim to do with this project is to shed some light on a piece of an inmate’s life that is not seen. When people think prison photography they think of hardened criminals, drug addicts, grimy hands gripping cell door bars, and the underbelly of society. I am offering the alternative viewpoint, which is the humanity inside. These men are fathers, sons, brothers, friends, and they all have people who care about them. They also have built communities of support for each other, inside.
PP: What’s been the feedback to your the work?
JH: As I work I like to get feedback from my peers. A lot of people who see photographs of inmates and due to their preconceived notions will shake their head and walk away thinking, “What monsters…” but with the work I do, I try to side step this notion and say, “No, look closer.”
No matter what I do, some people will never see it the way I’d like them to, but for people who can be open-minded, the work gives an inside look to the humanity that exists inside prison, and awareness of the struggles of their families.
PP: Anything else you’d like to add?
JH: As I move forward in my thesis, I am turning my focus to just one inmate in particular, Miguel Quezada. This is the working statement:
“Estamos Contigo (We Are With You)” - Miguel Quezada (below) was incarcerated at age 16. Now 31, he has spent half of his entire life in prison. Due to a harsh judicial decision that he should serve his sentences consecutively, his first parole hearing is not until the year 2040. He will be 60 years old. Home, for Miguel, rests between the realities of life at San Quentin Prison today, memories of his childhood cut short, and dreams of a faraway tomorrow. His family shares this stress, mourning the loss of their loved one’s free life. From the part of South Modesto, California known for its lack of sidewalks and high crime rate, Miguel grew up in poverty with his parents who immigrated from Mexico. His mother and father, Arturo and Lucila, are almost completely illiterate, so writing letters takes a lot of time and energy. Miguel appreciates it when they do write, but loves when they send photographs. His nieces and nephew, who he has never met outside of prison visitations, write him frequently and give him a sense of connectivity to the outside world. Miguel is one of hundreds of men in the state of California with similar stories – serving life for a mistake made as a teenager. The barriers of the prison walls will never restrain the emotional longing of one human being to be with another.
PP: We look forward to checking in again soon. Thanks, Jordana.
JH: Thank you.
© Mark Murrmann, from the series, Invitation To A Hanging.
Two very potent articles published in Guernica Magazine have impressed recently.
First up, Ann Neumann details the heavy-handed force-feeding procedures by prison staff in response to the longest ongoing hunger strike in America.
The Longest Hunger Strike: American courts recognize rights to refuse life-saving treatment. So why won’t the State of Connecticut let William Coleman die?
“Staff turned off the video camera typically used to record medical procedures. They strapped Coleman down at “four points” with seatbelt-like “therapeutic” restraints. Edward Blanchette, the internist and prison medical director at the time, pushed a thick, flexible tube up Coleman’s right nostril. Rubber scraped against cartilage and bone and drew blood. Coleman howled. As the tube snaked into his throat, it kinked, bringing the force of insertion onto the sharp edges of the bent tube. They thought he was resisting so they secured a wide mesh strap over his shoulders to keep him from moving. A nurse held his head. Blanchette finally realized that the tube had kinked and pulled it back out. He pushed a second tube up Coleman’s nose, down his throat, and into his stomach. Blanchette filled the tube with vanilla Ensure. Coleman’s nose bled. He gagged constantly against the tube. He puked. As they led him back to his cell, the cuffs of Coleman’s gray sweatshirt were soaked with snot, saliva, vomit, and blood.”
““I have been tortured,” he would say later. And it was enough to make Coleman start drinking fluids again. For a while. When he stopped a few months later, the prison force-fed him again, and twelve more times over the next two years. By last year they could no longer use Coleman’s right nostril. A broken nose in his youth and repeated insertion of the tube have made it too sensitive.”
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Secondly, S.J. Culver writes about his discomfort visiting Alcatraz, discussing the problems that plague all sites of dark tourism.
Escape to Alcatraz: Notes on prison tourism.
“Alcatraz Island, understandably, does not bill itself as a place to spend twenty-eight dollars to get really depressed about a country’s piss-poor priorities regarding human rights. [...] I begin to think that, if the point of an authentic tourism experience (if such a thing exists) is to understand another condition closely, the Alcatraz cellhouse tour fails. The punishing repetitiveness of incarceration is utterly absent in the carefully paced rise and fall of the yarns on the recorded tour. Worse, there’s no mention of how the Alcatraz cellblock, with its dioramas meticulously re-creating midcentury prison life, might resemble or not resemble a contemporary working U.S. prison. Plenty of the visitors around me seem to think they are witnessing “real” incarceration. I sense my initial impression had more truth than I realized; what we’re taking in is closer to a film set than to county lockup.”
The gulf between the realities of prison life and museum prison narratives are sometimes more pronounced than the differences between the realities of prison life and photographs of prisons in the media.
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While we’re on the topic of prison museums, a mention of Mark Murrmann‘s photographs of Invitation To A Hanging is long overdue. You might know Murrmann as the kick-ass photographer of punk. He is also the very kind and engaged photo editor at Mother Jones.
‘Prison museums?’ I hear you say. There’s more than you think.
Prison museums and dark tourism on Prison Photography
19th Century Museum Prison Ships
Roger Cremers: Auschwitz Tourist Photography
Daniel and Geo Fuchs’ STASI – Secret Rooms
Steve Davis visits the Old Montana Prison
Hohenschönhausen, Berlin: Stasi Prison Polaroids
Philipp Lohöfener at the Stasi Prison Museum, Berlin
San Pedro Prison, Bolivia: As the Tourists, Dollars and Snapshots End the Riots Begin
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Thanks to Bob for the tip.
All I want for Christmas is more weird images.
Twelve months ago, I posted To You, Happy Christmas, From Google Image Search. I guess now that I’m revisiting the format, it’s now a holiday tradition? I don’t know if this years selection tops last. I’ll let you be the judges.
Merry seasonal cheer to one and all.
As you know, I’m a great admirer of photography programs and mentorships for youth. Expression in the arts gives children their voice. I’ve even wondered if the empowerment provided through self-representation could benefit prisoners.
There exist dozens of important non-profits and volunteer programs helping youth of all backgrounds, including at-risk youth, to tell their stories through photography.
Organisations such as Youth in Focus, Seattle; AS220 Youth Photography Program, Providence, RI; New Urban Arts, Providence; First Exposures by SF Camerawork in San Francisco; The In-Sight Photography Project, Vermont; Leave Out ViolencE (LOVE), Nova Scotia; Inner City Light, Chicago; Focus on Youth and My Story in Portland, OR; Picture Me at the MoCP, Chicago; Eye on the Third Ward, Houston; The Bridge, Charlottesville, VA; the Red Hook Photography Project, New York; and Emily Schiffer’s My Viewpoint Photo Initiative are exemplars of youth empowerment through photography.
One of the leading participatory photography bodies is Photovoice in the UK. It has 50 programs in 23 countries.
Simply and brilliantly, Critical Exposure – which was founded in 2004 - gives centre stage to Samera, one of the students. Watch it and celebrate the resilience and thoughtfulness of youth. It’s uncomplicated and effective storytelling, and you will be convinced of the undoubted value of these photography programs.
Samera is a compelling voice. After describing her own situation, she makes quite a simple request. She asks that schools within the same metropolitan area have better communication. She identified a fault in the system and she asked that it be fixed so others wouldn’t have to go through the same clumsy and disappointing mal-communications between Washington school district and a charter school. It’s a fair request.
Communities we shape for better, engender growth. Youths’ enthusiasm to be raised in an encouraging environment should not be neglected.
Request: “I would like to see the downtown Chicago or the lake of Chicago it will bring me happiness to see a real nice picture of the downtown. Please! A good place to eat! Nice cars! I been locked up for 17 long years!”
Last week, I asked Where Are All The Photographs Of Solitary Confinement? In terms of evidential imagery, the question still stands. A very different but equally interesting angle to take in the inquiry into images from within solitary is to consider the imagined and idealised images that persist within the minds of prisoners.
FROM LOCKED DOWN MINDS TO TANGIBLE PRINTS
Tamms Year Ten (TY10), a Chicago-based activist group campaigning to close down the controversial Tamms Supemax in Illinois, is not only finding out what the precious images are in the minds of men in solitary, they are going out into the world and making those images a reality – making files, prints to be mailed to each man, and prints for awareness-raising exhibitions.
TY10 asked scores of men in solitary, “If you could have one picture, what would it be?” The requests can be anything in worlds real or imagined. Once made, the images are opportunities for prisoners to see what they want to, what they used to, or perhaps what they may never see again.
Tamms prisoners never leave their cells except to shower or exercise alone in a concrete pen. Meals are pushed through a slot in the cell door. There are no jobs, communal activities or contact visits. Suicide attempts, self-mutilation, psychosis and serious mental disorders are common at Tamms, and are an expected consequence of long-term isolation.
The U.N. Committee Against Torture considers such conditions to be cruel, inhuman and degrading, and when the isolation is indefinite – as at Tamms – to be form of torture. Last year, the U.N. Special Rapporteur on torture Juan E. Méndez called for a global ban on solitary confinement in excess of 15 days.
This year, Governor Pat Quinn announced his plans to shut down the prison but closure has been halted because of lawsuits by the prison guards’ union, AFSCME.
FRAMEWORK FOR CONSIDERING THESE IMAGES
Below are a selection of the requests and resulting images. They are a hodge-podge collection of styles and approaches and clearly many of the images do not meet the standards of fine art aesthetics. But, those standards are not by which these images should be judged.
The images originate from the minds of men who exist in environments of severe sensory deprivation. Each image is conjured from the absence of imagery.
Process trumps product in the TY10 Photo Requests From Solitary project. These images connect and educate people across supermax divides – the most opaque divides of prison regulation. The Photos From Solitary Project - one of the many TY10 efforts to engage the public on the issue of cruel and unusual detention - was conceived of to capture the eyes and ears of people and draw them in to protest and resistance.
The processes in making these images buttress, and spread, committed social justice activism; that is their worth.
Active in the project are artists and photographers Greg Ruffing, Oli Rodriguez, Jeanine Oleson, Rachel Herman, Claire Pentecost, Colleen Plumb, Tracy Sefcik, Harry Bos, Chris Murphy, Billy Dee, Lindsay Blair Brown, Karen Rodriguez, Sue Coe, Danny Orendorff, Lloyd Degrane and others.
Requests remain open and you can get involved too. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org
Request: “If you please, send me photographs of laser-printed image on white paper or the 10 most-dangerous land animals in the world. If you do not find it onerous and unreasonable, send me pictures of the land animals too, with a description of each animal.”
Photo montage by Mark Cooley; research and text by Stephen F. Eisenman.
Request: “I want a photo of the whole block of 63rd and Marshfield, on the south-side in the Englewood community – the 6300 block of south Marshfield is where I’m from. I would like it taken in the day time, between two and four o’clock p.m. It’s a green and white duplex-like house – the only green and while house on the block – that my Auntie “Gibby” lives in. I want the picture taken from the sidewalk (that leads to the T-shape alley going towards Ashland and 63rd) in front of the alley, facing slightly towards 64th Marshfield. But, make sure majority of the west-side of the block gets pictured.”
Request: “I would like my own picture done with an alternate background from the IDOC picture. I have no pictures of myself to give my friends and family. This would mean a great deal to me. If this is not able to be done. Then I’ll leave the picture for you to decide. If you can place my picture on another background. Nothing too much please. Something simple like a blue sky with clouds or a sunset in the distance would be fine.”
Request: “I would like to see a picture of a beach with the clearest water, and palm trees and birds with colorful plume, and maybe with the sun setting low on the horizon. The only instruction I have would be for you to create this photo with imagination and serenity.”
Request: “It’ll be great to get a picture of the chicago skyline at night, with all the big buildings (Willis Tower, etc) and lakefront. really I would just like pictures of the city, the x-mas tree down town, mag-mile, Mill park the places people come to chicago to see. Hey, you’re the photographer, just do what you do!”
Request: “Jennifer Lopez music videos with her ex Ben Affleck on the boat with her butt showing. I will like to see her butt.”
Request: “I would love a photograph of a woman setting by a lake fishing, with an empty chair next to her, with a cooler of beer. And in the empty chair have a sign with FreeBird on it! And have a Harley Davidson motorcycle in the background! I’d prefer the photographer take the photo from a boat out in the lake! Also, I’d prefer a woman that’s over 40!”
Request: “At 66 yrs. of age I try to use a little humor. I want a picture of a trash-can with the lid half off, with two eyes peeking out of the half-open lid. The trash can is rolling down the hill toward an incinerator with the caption: ‘I seem to be picking up speed I must be headed towards a bright future.’ I was in Florence, CO. So if you could get a picture of me in the Feds and in the state Max joints you could caption both: ‘From Max to Max and no end in sight’.”
Request: “A lovesick clown, holding a old fashioned feathered pen, as if writing a letter. From the waist up, in black and white. As close up as possible with as much detail as possible, and with the face about four inches big.”
Request: “I would like this picture drawn my ID as is. Don’t add a thing. Just the face will do. Thank you for this blessing. I don’t have any pictures of myself; they all were confiscated, years back, when I was at Pontiac. So I would like to know if you could get a picture of me off the internet or the ID photo that I believe you have. Don’t worry I still don’t smile or laugh it’s been years since I smiled, but thanks to your offer I will be smiling if I get the picture your offering. I believe you could get my mug shot off the internet. The picture is to be sent to my mother in Puerto Rico.”
Request: “Cast of the Kidd Kraddick in the Morning Show: Kelly Rasberry; Big Al Mack; Jenna; Psycho Shannon; Kidd Kraddick; JS.” [This is the cast of the radio show he listens to every day. He has been in isolation for 12 years.]
Request: “A picture of the stone archway in the back of the yard’s neighborhood located at 40th and Exchange St; between Halsted and Racine Streets on the South Side. It’s the last remaining thing from the Union Stockyards. I used to climb up on this structure as a kid; a few angle’s of it taken from different directions. I am not limited to any photo amounts.”
Request: “I would like a photograph of Madison and Ashland looking West towards the United Center, and if you could, I would like a full frontal view of the Michael Jordan statue in front of the United Center. THANK YOU!”
Request: “A photo of my deceased mother standing in front of a mansion, or big castle with a bunch of money on the ground and a black Hummer parked in front of it. I truly appreciate this a lot. I have been trying to get a picture of this, for a long time now. Please send the picture back when you are finished. We can’t receive Polaroids, just regular pictures that is 15 pictures, but 10 per envelope. I’m sending you two poems I wrote. I would truly appreciate it a lot from you helping me out, especially as I don’t have nobody out there. Now I know somebody out there in the world cares about us in here.”
Request: “I would like to receive a photograph of a “8×10″ Puerto Rican Flag. Thank you in advance! This could be taken in the Humboldt Park neighborhood in Chicago.”
Request: “I would like a picture of downtown Waukegan, IL located in Lake County, IL. The best place to photograph would be Genesse St.”
Request: “Photographs of Tamms Year Ten – that is, if they are not prohibited. :< I’d just like to be able to put the faces to the names we’ve seen over the years so the humanity of each can shine forth – a name on paper at the end of the day is still just a name on paper!”
Request: “The Bald Knob Cross in the Southern area of Illinois with someone of the Christian faith going there praying for me with the Grand Cross in the picture praying that I am released from Tamms and that I make parole. I’ve been locked up 36 long years, and time in Tamms is hindering my chances of making parole. I am asking for intercession prayers for my release from Tamms by this personal Bald Knob Cross and the chain will cause my family and others to go there too. Be sure to include the Bald Knob Cross in the picture and to pray for my release from Tamms and to make parole. My family and church will also finish linking the chain of this event. Persistently offering prayers combined with solemn earnest efforts and devoted work to change things. God + Tamms Year Ten + dynamic team!”
TY10 note: We coordinated with the management at Bald Knob Cross, gathered his family members and others, drove six hours to Bald Knob Cross and held a beautiful litany with prayer, song and verse and every family member speaking. The next day we took family members to visit Tamms. Willie was transferred from Tamms the day before the prayer vigil! This summer - after 37 years in prison - he got parole. Willie was put on a Greyhound bus and was back in Chicago the next day. We had a Welcome Home party for him and he talked about this photograph.
Request: “A photograph within a photo of me + the lake front. A photograph within a photo of me + Navy Pier. A photograph within a photo of me + wild lions. A photograph within a photo of me + wild wolves. A photograph within a photo of me + Chinese Dragon. For next Christmas mailing of cards. Please place me in the right, upper corner of the photo within a photo and make copies of them 5 each. Thank you very much and many blessings. Get my photo off the Tamms, prison profile website.”
Request: “A photo of the Christmas tree downtown.”
Request: “I don’t know if this like an artist drawing a picture if so I got into the whole superhero thing and I had this idea where two major comic Marvel/DC. It’s a mural with Thor, Captain America, Wolverine, Venom, Iron Man, Hulk teamed up with Superman, Green Arrow, Flash, and Batman against Two Face, Joker, Magneto, Dr Doom, Saber Tooth, Kingpin, and Green Goblin. A battle of good-vs-evil theme.”
Request: “I would like to receive an image laser-printed on regular white paper photograph a myself off the internet without my criminal convictions or other information attached to the photo. I would like the three photographs I am sending to you copied onto digital paper that can be used in a computer enhancement. If someone can do this for me, I will appreciate it very much and thank you. If you can not do it send my photos back, please. ”
TY10 Note: We completed this one and the IDOC censored it and returned it to us.
Request: “I would like a photographer to capture the image of a little boy and girl, sitting side by side, on a piano bench, the two of them playing together, with a single bright red rose on the piano keys. If possible, make sure the kids are anywhere from 3-7 years old, dressed in sunday best. It shall be a romantic photo, which I hope to give to my wife. 8×10 copy of the completed photo.”
TAMMS YEAR TEN & PHOTO REQUESTS FROM SOLITARY
The exhibition Photo Requests From Solitary is on show until the 21st December, at the Tamms Year Ten Campaign Office, Sullivan Galleries, School of the Art Institute of Chicago, 33 S. State St., 7th Floor, Chicago IL 60603.
The Tamms Year Ten Photos Requests From Solitary is supported by an Open Society Documentary Photography Audience Engagement Grant. In partnership with the National Religious Campaign Against Torture, the project is to expand to supermaxes in California and Virginia.
Tamms Year Ten is a grassroots coalition formed in 2008 to persuade Illinois legislators and the governor to reform or close Tamms supermax prison. Follow them on Facebook.