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I had a quick chat with Sébastien van Malleghem about why he is crowdfunding a photobook following his three years photographing prisons in Belgium.
It’s over at Vantage: Making Photos Inside To Bring The Stories Out
In short, this:
“The book is, for me, the closure of the story. Photographs must end on paper. That’s how the medium exists — in print. On paper, with full context, you can touch the pictures, understand the whole story. Things fade away on the Internet. Clicked, Like, then something else. Good photos in a book stick to your head. The largest part of my photo story will be exclusive to the book.”
Photo: Meghann Riepenhoff
I’m one of five jurors for this years annual juried show at SF Camerawork. Y’all should enter. Here’s the blurb …
CALL FOR ENTRIES: HEAT
HEAT registers the volatility and restlessness that comes with long hot summers: violent crime rates increase, leases expire and people seek new homes, global weather changes signal an alarm, and warm summer days bring adults and children alike into the streets, parks, and beaches.
SF Camerawork invites artists to submit work that responds to HEAT: the social, political, and climatic conditions of rapidly changing environments. Following the lead of social and political advocates around the world, SF Camerawork asks artists working at all levels in photography to participate.
Art is politics. Particularly in the realistic forms of photography and filmmaking, what gets assigned, shown or sold reflects political considerations. […] Politics is in the air. All you need to do to get the message is breathe. – Danny Lyon.
Photo: David Butow
Deadline: Monday, June 15, 2015, 5pm PST.
Notification: Finalists will be contacted on July 1st.
Exhibition Dates: July 23 – August 22, 2015.
Opening Reception: Thursday, July 23, 6-8pm.
Application Fee: $50 application fee for up to 15 images.
ENTER NOW ON LENSCULTURE AND CREATE AN ACCOUNT TO UPLOAD YOUR APPLICATION
EXHIBITION AT SF CAMERAWORK: 2-5 finalists will have a 4-week exhibition at SF Camerawork.
LIVE ONLINE REVIEW SESSION: Finalists will receive a one-on-one review with a juror through this innovative platform hosted by LensCulture.
20 JUROR SELECTIONS FEATURED: 20 juror selections will be exhibited on interactive screens at SF Camerawork as part of the exhibition.
FEATURE ARTICLE ON LENSCULTURE: Finalists will be featured in an article on LensCulture.
ONE YEAR MEMBERSHIP: All entrants will receive a one-year membership to SF Camerawork.
HEAT 2015 JURY
Pete Brook, Writer and Curator, Founder: Prison Photography
Jim Casper, Editor and Publisher, LensCulture
Seth Curcio, Associate Director, Pier 24 Photography
Janet Delaney, Artist and Educator
Heather Snider, Executive Director, SF Camerawork
Please email info@sfcamerawork with “Call for Entries” in the subject line.
Founded in 1974, SF Camerawork‘s mission is to encourage and support emerging artists to explore new directions and ideas in the photographic arts. Through exhibitions, publications, and educational programs, we strive to create an engaging platform for artistic exploration as well as community involvement and inquiry.
SF Camerawork is a membership-based organization.
1011 Market St., 2nd Floor
San Francisco, CA 94103
Gallery hours: 12:00 – 6:00 pm
Tuesday – Saturday (also by appointment)
Photo: McNair Evans
My piece For These Post-Soviet Nations, Big Oil Offers Hope and Fear
about Mila Teshaieva’s Promising Waters pubbed on WIRED this week.
Promising Waters documents changes Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan or Azerbaijan — three countries that touch the Caspian Sea and were for 70 years part of the Soviet Union.
“They are going through total reinvention—the new world, new society, and new futures pushed to rise with the help with oil and gas resources from the Caspian Sea,” says Teshaieva. “This idea of ‘new’ gives particular promises to people.”
Read the full piece and see more here.
If you’re in New York this Thursday and can spare the time, please think about joining four photo practitioners and I for Everyday Incarceration – Visualizing the Legacy of Mass Incarceration, a panel discussion about images of prisons and the associated social issues. We’ll be tackling the core question: Who gets to tell the story of a locked up nation?
THE LINE UP
Zara Katz and the Department of Visual Journalism at the CUNY J-School have done a great job of putting together a panel with diverse perspectives and practices – one documentary storyteller using video; one photographer who’s eye on the issues stretches back decades; one lawyer using software code and images to engage audiences and empower prisoners; and one former correctional officer turned campaigner armed with his photos from the job. Check the bios below!
THE PORTRAIT STUDIO
After the panel, we invite you to sit for a portrait and to tell us your experience with incarceration. The photos will appear on @EverydayIncarceration, a collaborative Instagram feed.
The panel takes place in Room 308 of the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism, at 219 W. 40th Street, NY 10018.
6:30-9:30pm on Thursday, May 14th.
Lashonia Etheridge-Bay, a 39 year-old woman who was granted parole in 2011 after spending 18 years in prison. Bulisova’s series Time Zone follows Etheridge-Bay’s return to society. Photo: Gabriela Bulisova.
Gabriela Bulisova is a documentary photographer and multimedia artist based in Washington, D.C. Over the past five years, she focused her attention on underreported and overlooked stories regarding incarceration and reentry, especially the impact on families. Bulisova has received numerous recognitions and awards, including The National Press Photographers Association’s Short Grant and Open Society Institute’s Moving Walls 18. In 2005, she was awarded the degree of Master of Fine Arts in Photography and Digital Imaging from the Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA) in Baltimore. She teaches graduate and undergraduate courses in photojournalism at the Corcoran School of Arts and Design in Washington D.C. and is a member of Women Photojournalists of Washington.
Michael is 17 and has ADHD, Attention Deficit Hyper Activity Disorder. He is on Ritalin. He is under house arrest and wears an electronic monitoring device. He was arrested for possession of a knife and violating probation. He is living in a hotel room with the rest of his family, 7 people in total. San Jose, California 1999. Photo: Joseph Rodriguez.
Joseph Rodriguez was born and raised in Brooklyn. His four-decade photography career examines incarceration, gangs, police and reentry, as well as families, communities and cultures across the globe. After being incarcerated at Rikers Island as a minor in the late-60s, Rodriguez turned to photography as a guide in his life. In 1985 he graduated from the International Center of Photography in New York. He went on to work for Black Star photo agency, and has published work in multiple top-tier outlets including National Geographic and The New York Times Magazine. He has received numerous awards and grants including New York Foundation for the Arts, Open Society Institute, National Endowment for the Arts, to name a few. Rodriguez currently teaches at New York University and as a visiting artist at national and international universities.
Photo: Lorenzo Steele.
Lorenzo Steele Jr. is a former New York City Correction officer (1987-1999) who mostly worked in the juvenile units at Rikers Island. He was regularly the photographer at events and celebrations with his fellow officers. In 1996, Steele began bringing his camera to the prison to document his experience there. That included daily violence and abuse of inmates and correctional officers. The deep emotional and physiological impact of his experience at Rikers compelled Steele to start a visual arts education program where he shares his photographs and prison experience with middle school and high school students.
Image courtesy of Nikki Zeichner/Growing Up Through Pictures
Nikki Zeichner began exploring multimedia storytelling with the Museum of the American Prison, a project that she initiated in 2012 to offer mainstream audiences a way to understand personal and experiential details of incarceration in the U.S. Her interest in telling stories about incarceration grew out of her experiences working as a criminal defense attorney in New York City and regularly visiting with clients held in federal and state pretrial detention facilities in lower Manhattan and Brooklyn. Nikki recently completed a Master’s degree in Integrated Digital Media from NYU’s Engineering School and is spending 2015 in San Francisco designing civic tech tools for a small, post-bankrupt municipality in Northern California. She remains in regular contact with the incarcerated individuals she worked with creatively on museum projects.
NO BARS, NO GUARDS, NO LOCKS
Tattered lace curtains, taped family photos, patterned carpets, plastic flowers and snappy fabrics. Gabriela Maj’s portraits from the series Almond Garden have all the chirpy, easy-to-patronize details of portraiture from a former Soviet controlled region. Lost you already? Think of Sergey Poteryaev’s portraits, Rafal Milach’s Winners in Belarus, Olya Ivanova’s portraits of young girls in rural Russia or anything by Sasha Rudensky. More directly consider the backdrops photographed by Lucia Ganieva.
(As much as I hate top-loading an article with links to a host of other photographers, I must because before we can understand how special and different Maj’s work is, we must appreciate the en vogue photo practices from which it emerges and above which it must rise.)
For the moderately trained eye, Maj’s work is obviously anchored within a super-region that still carries the visual culture of its immediate past. No matter how hard former Soviet countries try, nor how quick they build, photographers still seem to be able to isolate the details that’ll whiplash people back in time. The problem I outline here is twice as tricky because we, in the west, think that all changes in the former USSR since the end of the Cold War must at least be headed in the right direction.
The framework I am trying to set up here, basically, is that in which Soviets — and all those formerly-ruled by them — are ‘Othered’ and misunderstood by most viewers looking at photographs made in the region. I offer a word of caution before you step into Maj’s portraits. The stories burdened by the women in Maj’s Almond Garden are devastating and the worst thing we can do with Maj’s work is to lump it in with all that work of the knackered Russian empire.
Over the course of four years (2010 – 2014), Polish Canadian photographer Gabriela Maj travelled throughout Afghanistan to collect portraits and stories from inside the country’s women’s prisons. She visited with many of her subjects on multiple occasions.
Maj actually believes that being of Polish origin helped her to gain relatively unhampered access. Poland and Afghanistan shared a history of Soviet oppression.
It also helped being a woman. In fact, her mode and ability of movement revealed the so very twisted logic of a prison system that brutalised women.
“As a solitary female photographer, accompanied only by an Afghan interpreter, I was frequently left alone in the prisons once our guard escort tired of monitoring me. My sense was that unaccompanied by any security, a woman, albeit a foreign one, was not considered a threat,” she writes in an essay featured in the book. “Being overlooked in this way became a strategy that ultimately exposed the context within which I was working, one where women’s narratives were considered irrelevant to the power dynamics that ran the country.”
Maj went the extra mile and then some. The least we can do it get there with her. The majority of the prisoners Maj documented were incarcerated for what are known in Afghanistan as “moral crimes,” a term used to condemn those who’ve had sex outside of marriage, or run away from any number of abuses — forced marriages, being sold into prostitution, domestic slavery, physical violence generally conducted by their husbands, and rape and involuntary pregnancy.
Indeed, the portraits are powerful but it is the relentless injustice of the testimonies of the women that delivers the power and absolute necessity of Almond Garden. Maj has changed the names of the women to protect their privacy. She goes a step further and moves the stories to the back of the book.
“Separating the portraits from the stories has allowed for a record of the experiences of this group without any one woman being defined by the crime she was accused of,” explains the press release.
Each entry leads with the offense that the woman is accused with, her age and the length of her sentence.
I haven’t been so effected by a project pairing portraits of women with their transcribed words since, strange as it might be to offer, Malcolm Venville’s The Women of Casa X, which features portraits of aging sex-workers in Mexico. But, then again, perhaps not so strange? Both the women in Melville’s work and the prisoners in Maj’s work have been categorized, judged, ostracized and maligned by dominant patriarchal culture. In both cases, if the photographer hadn’t shown up, these stories would be buried (which is the culture’s intent, right?)
“Often times rejected by their families, these women’s situations can become grave after they are released,” says the Almond Garden‘s blurb. “Without the protection of their relatives that spurned them, they are often in very real danger of being killed or tortured unless they are able to seek refuge in a women’s shelter.”
It is bittersweet to think of these tortured moments in prison might be, for some women, where emotional and physical trauma exists least. That said, there is no psychological treatment or therapy available within the prisons Maj visited.
The title of the book Almond Garden is a play and is incongruous. It is the English translation of Badam Bagh, the name of Afghanistan’s most notorious penitentiary for women, located on the outskirts of Kabul.
Almond Garden publishers, Daylight Books, say that Maj’s project is the “largest record documenting the experiences of incarcerated women in Afghanistan produced to date.”
It’s stunning. It works in waves as all good photography should. I’ve been drawing important lessons from Almond Garden each time I’ve returned to it. Aesthetically, it’s as good as Michal Chelbin’s Swans and Sailboats, portraits from Ukraine and Russia. Ethically, I think it surpasses it as Chelbin is evasive about the details of her access.
BOOK TOUR, NOW!
Maj is currently on book tour.
BUY THE BOOK
Here, for $45.00.
DATES ON THE ALMOND GARDEN BOOK TOUR
May 1st, Exhibition and book signing with Daylight Books at the Leica Gallery in West Hollywood, CA.
May 5th, Presentation and book signing at Modern Times Bookstore in San Francisco, CA.
May 6th, Presentation and book signing at the Women’s Building,7:30-9:00, San Francisco, CA.
May 9th, Presentation and book signing at Apostrophe Books, 5:00-7:00pm, Long Beach, CA.
May 22nd, Presentation and book signing hosted by the Vermont Professional Photographers Association and the Peace and Justice Center, 6;00-8:00, Burlington, VT.
July 31st, Exhibition opening and book signing at Daylight Project Space , Hillsborough, NC.
August 8th, Book signing at Author’s Night 2015, East Hampton, NY.
© Grégoire Korganow pour le CGLpL
A WITNESS TO “HELL”
“Prisons are the stuff of fantasy, but there’s nothing spectacular about the reality I experienced there,” writes French photographer Grégoire Korganow in the artist notes for his current show Prisons: 2011 – 2014 at the Maison Européenne de la Photographie (MEP) from Feb 4th-May 4th, 2015.
“What really turns the ordinary into a nightmare and creates the hell of incarceration,” he continues, “are the multiple and repeated acts of degrading treatment — demeaning rules, solitude, promiscuity, insalubrity, idleness, absence of prospect, discomfort.”
According to Korganow, a suicide attempt is made every three days in French prisons.
© Grégoire Korganow pour le CGLpL
Parloir, 2012. © Grégoire Korganow pour le CGLpL.
© Grégoire Korganow pour le CGLpL
THE PHOTOGRAPHER WHO BECAME PRISON INSPECTOR
MEP is presenting 100 of Korganow’s photographs for the first time. He began making photographs in French prisons in 2010 during the filming for the documentary film by Stéphane Mercurio, In the Shadow of the Republic which describes the work of Jean Marie Delarue, The Comptroller General of Places of Deprivation of Liberty (CGPL).
When filming wrapped up, Delarue asked Korganow, if he’d his team and make a document and inventory of contemporary French prisons. It was an unprecedented, unorthodox and remarkable opportunity. Between January 2011 to January 2014, Korganow photographed twenty prisons — remaining in each for between five and ten days.
© Grégoire Korganow pour le CGLpL
“I penetrated to the heart of incarceration in France,” says Korganow. “I could photograph everything, inside the cells, the exercise yard, visiting rooms, showers, a solitary confinement … day or night. No place was forbidden.”
Delarue and Korganow had an agreement. Any and all of Korganow’s images could be used to illustrate CGPL reports. Then, at the end of Delarue’s term in May 2014, Korganow was free to publish the work under his own editorial.
“This is a first in France,” says Korganow. “Never before has a photographer moved so freely in prisons.”
© Grégoire Korganow pour le CGLpL
© Grégoire Korganow pour le CGLpL
TENTATIVE FIRST FOOTSTEPS INSIDE
Korganow admits to apprehension in the beginning.
“I wondered how those detained would welcome me. I too had a caricature of the prison and was afraid of not being able to return in connection with them.” Korganow wrote for Vice. “My relationship with detainees were frank. I spent a lot of time listening to them because the prison is a place that suffers from a lack of listening. I did not judge or ask them what they had done. I was benevolent, sometimes even when some inmates were unsympathetic to me. Fights between detainees are common. They start with a pair of coveted sneakers, a debt of cigarettes or a dirty look. I noticed that they were often brief, silent and extremely brutal.”
“It’s this closeness of confinement I’m trying to capture in colour, up close and personal, with no effects,” explains Korganow to MEP. As best he can Korganow avoids focusing on faces and individuality. He doesn’t want viewers to get stuck on speculations of who and what the prisoners are and did. Instead he tries to unleash an emotive narrative that describes the oppression of the place.
“I use little touches, soak up the geography of the prison, the light, sounds, smells and stories of the inmates. I capture the inexpressible, time standing still, life shrinking, fading,” he says. I offer the possibility to feel [the prison].”
Baumettes Jail in Marseille was the worst Korganow encountered — deplorable dirt, odor, noise or “Hell!” as he describes it. The photos were later published in the French outlet under the title ‘Prison of Shame’.
WITHIN A TRADITION OF FRENCH PRISON PHOTOGRAPHY
Korganow has made the most of his phenomenal access producing an unrivaled and varied of body of work about the French prisons. Nothing as engaging has emerged since Mohamed Bourouissa’s Temps Mort, Mathieu Pernot, Les Hurleurs, and (going way back) Jean Gaumy’s Les Incarcérés.
TimeOut Paris feels Korganow’s study deserves a place alongside the great social documentary of the medium — beside Lewis Hine’s factories, Charles Nègre’s asylums and Jacob Riis’s slums.
“It’s a hard-hitting show, but without drama or ‘miserabilism’,” writes TimeOut.
It’s a bleak picture for sure. Pay attention to any individual aspect of the work and you’ll be rewarded. The color of his images is dirty. In an effective way. Does that make sense? To me, the work, the scene and the entire enterprise feels tainted.
True colors fall away and dissipate under the weight of the hardware, walls and grills they coat. Everything is tinged, chipped damaged. Colour plays second fiddle to line. Form and line themselves describe constant claustrophobia.
Ronde de nuit, 2010. © Grégoire Korganow pour le CGLpL.
Salle d’attente, 2012. © Grégoire Korganow pour le CGLpL
© Grégoire Korganow pour le CGLpL
Subtly, at first, and then over time building to a cacophony is Korganow’s use of windows, apertures and grates. His near anonymous subjects peer out and through portholes. In many cases, this use of inside/outside metaphor and a yearning for the great beyond comes across as trite but not in Korganow’s Prisons. He succeeds in his aim to describe the foreign, oft-fantasied world of prisons. He presents a world defined by its fabric and that fabric assumes it’s own operative force. Korganow recalls meeting a 36 year old prisoner. He’d been locked away aged 19, on an original sentence of 3-years.
“He had accumulated an incredible amount of penalties for offenses committed within the prison abuse, violence, arson, etc,“ wrote for Vice. “He who refuses to submit to the authority of the prison administration will probably never be released. He is buried alive.”
When the not so young man spoke to Korganow, his release date was 2040.
© Grégoire Korganow pour le CGLpL
Distribution des cantines, 2010. © Grégoire korganow pour le CGLPL.
© Grégoire Korganow pour le CGLpL
The book Prisons – 67065, by Grégoire Korganow, is published by Neus Les Belles Lettres. The “67065” in the title refers to the number of prisoners in the French system at the time of publication.
Grégoire Korganow graduated in Applied Arts from the Ecole Estienne, Paris. Following his studies, in 1991, he documented change in the former Soviet bloc. His photographs of the 1993 riots in Goutte d’Or, Paris, propelled him into the press limelight. Korganow makes images “as an invitation to look at the flaws, paradoxes, contemporary disorders. He is interested in off-screen, with the remote. The body, stigma, and social transformations are central in his work.” He has photographed housing crises (1994), undocumented persons (1995), the Mapuche Indians of Chile (2003), Iraqi victims of war (2010) and alcoholics (2011) .
Korganow’s practice spans photo, film band broadcast media, as well as criticism of those same forms. IN 2001, he was co-founder of Air Photo magazine. He was a creative director of the Being 20, the Alternative photobook collection. He’s worked with directors Stéphane Mercurio and Christophe Otzenberger. Also, attracted by the off-screen, he’s photographed the 2002 French presidential election, production stills for movie production, and fashion shows
In 2008, his series Wings and Next about the lives of families of detainees, showed at Rencontres d’Arles. Between 2011 and 2014, as Controller of Places of Deprivation of Liberty, he made a long form survey of confinement in France titled Prisons.
Korganow’s work has been published in L’Express, Télérama, Marie Claire, Geo, National Geographic, and The New York Times. He was a member of the Métis Agency (1998-2002) and is now a member of Rapho (2002-).
Cour de promenade, 2010. © Grégoire Korganow pour le CGLpL
Site Unseen: Incarceration flyer. Featuring the work of Jack L. Morris, a California prisoner who has been in solitary confinement for almost 25 years.
Do artworks made on opposite sides of prison walls work together in a gallery space?
Yesterday, at the Los Angeles Valley College, in Valley Glen, CA the exhibition Site Unseen: Incarceration came down form the walls. It was an exhibition bringing together prisoner-made art with artworks made by outside artists about prisons. (Catalogue in PDF, here)
Some artists I knew — Alyse Emdur, Anthony Friedkin, Los Angeles Poverty Department, Sheila Pinkel, Richard Ross, Mark Strandquist, and Margaret Stratton. Others are new to me — Robert V. Montenegro, Jack L. Morris, Brendan Murdock, Gabriel Ramirez, Gabriel Reyes, Robert Stockton and David Earl Williams.
Shamefully, all those names with which I am unfamiliar I quickly learnt are prisoners. Why shame? Well, it’s all about consistency. I value activism that is built upon close alliance with, and information, from prisoners. There are no better experts on the system than those subject to it. At the very least, I should know and support the leading Prison Artists.
However, when it comes to painting and illustration, I have adopted lazy double standards. Without examination, I have demoted prisoner made art — commonly referred to by the catch all “Prison Art” — to an inferior status. I have prejudged most Prison Art. For my own comfort, I have bracketed Prison Art as naive and limited. I’ve conveniently focused on scarcity of supplies inside prison of prison to cursorily explain the lo-fi aesthetic of Prison Art.
My “logic” blinded me to the invention, resourcefulness and resistance inherent to almost all prison art. Hell, we’ve got prisoners making work out of M&Ms.
Site Unseen: Incarceration, therefore, is a nice kick back in the right direction. If we don’t have prisoners’ own artwork upon which to meditate then we lose site of the issues fast. As much as I have championed the work of Emdur, Ross, Strandquist and the Los Angeles Poverty Department, I want to now celebrate the works of Jack L. Morris, Brendan Murdock, Gabriel Ramirez, Gabriel Reyes and David Earl Williams.
I wish also to applaud Sheila Pinkel for bringing together inside and outside, and for committing the oppressed and their allies to one another upon gallery walls.
Sheila Pinkel. Site Unseen: U.S. Incarceration (2014). 7’ x 14’ Archival ink jet prints. Pinkel remarks, “Site Unseen: U.S. Incarceration includes the major laws that have resulted in the expansion of the prison system, the Sentencing Reform Act (1984), Mandatory Minimum Sentencing Law (1986) and Three Strikes Law (1994). It is important to note that in the 1960s, during the civil rights era, rate of incarceration was declining as people adopted the ‘rehabilitation not incarceration’ attitude. However, after the Rockefeller Drug Laws took hold, incarceration in the United States began to grow exponentially. Also included is demographic information about the high rate of incarceration of non-white people and women, the great number of people being held in solitary confinement and the massive amounts of money being made by investors in the prison industrial complex. The backdrop for the graph is a set of images from U.S. history taken in the 19th and 20th centuries that reflect the treatment of minorities and prisoners. The poor, non-white and uneducated make up the majority of incarcerated today.
Origins of the Show
In 2004, Pinkel exhibited for the first time her mammoth work Site Unseen: U.S. Incarceration (above). While the shared title between this catalyst work and the exhibition confuses matters a little, it demonstrates the degree to which Pinkel is bound to prison reform. Passion + politics is usually a good recipe for art.
Pinkel’s motivations for mounting the show are many — concerns for Mumia Abu-Jamal’s case; an awareness of slavery (past and present); the doctrines of ownership and manifest destiny; sensitivity to the quiet traditions of aboriginal people; a raised consciousness toward the unparalleled use of torturous solitary confinement; and the profit making industries of the prison industrial complex; and more besides.
The urgent issues within the reform and abolitionist movements are so great that often they can drown each other out, or obscure one another. Perhaps, that is where silent 2D artworks come to play their part. Perhaps, a gallery space in which viewers can mediate their own responses is a hushed but vital contribution to the reform debate?
David Earl Williams. Parrots (1996). 22” x 28” Ball point pen.
It is helpful for me to interrogate the idea that gallery shows and art have an effect upon political realities. I make a conscious effort to justify my workand others’ and to continually ask if analysing images and creative output from prisons changes the daily experience of the United States’ 2.3 million prisoners.
I conclude, often, that conscientious and intellectually honest analysis of images from prisons plays its role in the wider discussion needed to drag us out of this prison crisis.
Prison Sketches in the Absence of Prison Photos
Undoubtedly, in the past few years, solitary confinement has emerged as one of the main, digestible and terrifying issues behind which reformers could win arguments, gain traction and mindshare. The public now know that 80,000 people on any given day are subject to psychological torture within our prisons.
Many of the photographs of Supermax and solitary units — and there are not many — have come about because of court ordered entry to facilities. With the exception of Social Practice make-believe, artists and photographers have, for the most part, failed to image these dark, hidden spaces for the public. I’m apportioning no blame here, just pointing out fact. With that understanding, then, it is significant that the majority of prison artists in Site Unseen are either in solitary or on death row.
Brendan Murdock. Tower (2012). 9” x 12” Linoleum cut print.
One of the artists in Site Unseen is Jack L. Morris, a creative spirit with whom Pinkel has had a lasting personal and professional relationship. In 2011, Pinkel began corresponding with Morris. At that point, he’d been incarcerated for 31 years. In 1978, aged 18, Morris was sentenced to a 15 years to life for being an accomplice to a murder. When the California Department of Corrections (CDCr) opened Pelican Bay Sate Prison (the first state-run Supermax in the nation) in 1989, Morris was transferred. He’s been in solitary confinement since.
“During this time he has not seen sunlight or touched another person,” says Pinkel.
Jack L. Morris. Turtle (2012). Dimensions: 12” x 12” Medium: pen, pencil, peanut butter oil, pastel color.
Pinkel points out that the decision-making power to place someone in solitary is solely in the hands of the correctional officers. Checks and balances against abuse in this ‘Us vs. Them’ equation are largely absent. Pinkel believes that Morris, like many prisoners in the SHU, is subject to a Kafkaesque situation in which solitary is inescapable. While policies are shifting after attention from Sacramento politicians, it remains incredibly difficult to get out of the SHU if CDCr has classed you as a gang member.
“Jack has not been involved in gang activity and has had no ability to be involved in it since he has been in solitary. However, he is repeatedly denied release from solitary and has had his designation increased to active gang affiliation,” says Pinkel. “At the moment, there is no legal way for him to get out and, to my mind, there is no good being served by his continued incarceration, either in solitary or in prison at all.”
Alyse Emdur. Anonymous backdrop painted in New York State Correctional Facility Woodburn (2012). Dimensions:42” x 52” Inkjet print.
Clearly, Pinkel has an affiliation. Put that aside though and consider Morris for his work and you can’t help but be impressed. In order to prevent himself “losing his mind”, Morris created poems, drawing and letters. Pinkel published them in the book The World of Jack L. Morris: From the SHU.
“Together,” says Pinkel, “they form a complex picture of a talented person who believed most of his life that he was not intelligent.”
And so we arrive here. At Morris’ and other art from inside. To be mesmerised by the intricacy of the work is understandable, but more-so we should be quietly and slowly scrutinising the work and using it as a gateway to a psychology we must surely hope we, or any of our loved ones, ever come to know.
Prison illustrations work very similarly to photographs in some ways, in that tropes recur and we find ourselves glossing over them. We presume that the system gives rise to them same type of images of flora, fauna, cars, tattoo-inspired designs, versions of women, motorcycles, sad clowns, tears and blood. These things are prevalent, but individual touches exist in the gaps and it is there we may identify the individual artist.
Gabriel Ramirez. De Profundis … Dreams (Before 2007). 11.5” x 15” Medium: Pencil on manilla envelope.
The worst thing prison art and photography, alike, can be is misunderstood as aesthetic cliche and used as excuse to bypass the social conditions from which they arise. Prisoner art from solitary is the most reliable source of imagery on which we can rely to learn about extreme confinement. We just need to give it space to percolate. A gallery can do that.
There’s a perverse clash of time appreciation at work in order for prison art to have an effect. The artist labors for days and weeks on a single piece and goes to great lengths to deliver it outside the institution. On the outside, we’re spoilt for images and it’s almost luck or strange happenstance for us to spend more than a few seconds with an image. But, it is possible and a gallery can do that.
Mark Strandquist. Windows From Prison (2014). Banners 5’ x 11’. Digital prints on vinyl.
As might evident, I am largely in support of Site Unseen. However, looking over the catalogue, I am a bit skeptical toward the mix of works. Does Mark Strandquist’s work (above) that relies heavily on public education and engagement work when he cannot transform the gallery into a workshop space or collaborate with local reform groups? Are we getting to the point that a prison show cannot exist without the work of Richard Ross!? (I’m friends with Richard and had breakfast with him this morning; he won’t mind the snark). It just seems Ross might be an easy option.
Is Site Unseen a prison art show supported by outside sympathisers, some of whom happen to be artists? Or is it a genuine attempt to level the field and present artists inside and outside as equivalents? The latter is a tough proposition. I have seen it done though. The Cell and the Sanctuary (Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History) managed to knit insider and outsider artists works together, but they managed it effectively because they were all either students or faculty in the William James Association’s Arts In Corrections program at San Quentin. A visual thread ran through The Cell and the Sanctuary that is not as immediately apparent in Site Unseen.
Margaret Stratton. Ship’s Passenger Log, December 1916, Ellis Island, New York City, June 29, 1999, 10:35 a.m. (1999). 16” x 20”. Archival digital print.
The main culprit, for me, is the work of Margaret Stratton (above). I’ve constantly wondered what use have images of decaying/ abandoned prisons for connecting us to pressing contemporary prison issues. I can find value in most other works in Site Unseen as they’ve a clear umbilical cord to the tumorous, pulsing Prison Industrial Complex. We can sense the toxic bile of the system in the majority of the works. We can wonder at the ability to stay sane and creative from within such a system. I get none of that awe from Stratton’s work.
I understand Stratton’s B&W images employ a different route to the issue and I don’t want to suggest there’s any inherent flaw in the work or its tactics. The fault, if any, lies with the decision to include this type of work that I identify as an outlier within the collected works.
Four Convicts, Folsom Prison, CA (1991). Dimensions: 11” x 14” Black and white gelatin silver print.
Another , but slightly less obvious, outlier is Anthony Friedkin’s photo of four Folsom prisoners in the early 90s. It is a captivating portrait for sure (one that I featured very early on Prison Photography) but it is hardly representative — of either recent photographs from prisons, or the U.S. prison population as a whole. Friedkin is best known for his illuminating access into, and photographs of, gay culture in San Francisco and Los Angeles. His respectful treatment of these derided communities was light years ahead of mainstream political consciousness. Friedkin lived among the LGBQT community and the intimacy and support shows through in his work.
I cannot think that Friedkin had a mere fraction of that sort of access to the prison population. I suspect he made his image above on a single visit to Folsom Prison. I have not seen any other photographs from prison by Friedkin. And so, this image, is neither representative of Friedkin’s work. It is ham, distant and reliant on the tropes of prison cliche. Not only is it out of place, it is out of time.
Gabriel Reyes. Like a Hook (Before 2007). 8.5” x 11”, Ball point pen on paper.
As far as I am concerned, any and all mentions of Alyse Emdur’s Prison Landscapes and the Los Angeles Poverty Department’s performances (below) are absolutely essential and cannot be reiterated enough. Each are powerful statements on the nature of power and the over-reach of state control.
LAPD’s dramatisations are informed by the experiences of people who have been incarcerated and Emdur’s collected portraits and large format photos of prison visiting room backdrops originate from a keen engagements with the visual logic of carceral systems.
Robert Stockton. Fight (Before 2007): 8.5” x 11”. Pen, additional color.
Prisons and criminal justice reform are gaining attention in the news and public consciousness (a good thing), but just because the conversation is being had and the appetite for a show like Site Unseen might be more ready, the challenging logistics of putting together a curated show of this kind remain unchanged. Kudos to Pinkel for bringing togther artists from inside and outside prison invested in the same goal of making the U.S. a less dangerous, punitive and misunderstood place.
At first glance, the mix of ‘prison art’ on one hand and ‘art made about prisons’ on the other might appear incongruous, but that attitude is exposed as flawed very quickly. As the majority of works in Site Unseen emerge as responses to this country’s brutal, class-dividing prison system, I must conclude that they can do nothing but work together. And so must we if we’re to scale back on decades of fear, bad law and failed policy. If you need resolve and fire-in-your-belly for the task then merely look to the work of those who are subject to confinement. You’ll find it, quietly roaring, there.
Portland’s a pretty small town. When I lived their I was a fellow panelist with Julie Perini. Jodi Darby once beat me, by mere seconds, to a killer secondhand sweater in a donation pile on the street. I’ve never met Erin Yanke. The three producers have recently completed Arresting Power, a documentary about resistance to police violence in Portland, Oregon.
I supported the Kickstarter to get the film over the finishing line, so I am happy to see it out in the world. On Friday, May 8th, Arresting Power will screen at the Kala Art Institute in Berkeley, CA.
Arresting Power – Resisting Police Violence in Portland, Oregon provides a historical and political analysis of the role of the police in contemporary society and the history of policing in the United States. It provides a framework for understanding the systems of social control in Portland with its history of exclusion laws, racial profiling, gentrification practices and policing along lines of race and class. It serves to uncover Portland’s unique history of police relations and community response.
Arresting Power features interviews with the families of people who were killed by Portland police, victims of police misconduct, local historians and community organizers. Utilizing archival newsreel from the Oregon Historical Society’s moving image archive, the film explores the history of police reform and abolition movements that have been active throughout the past 50 years.
Watch the trailer here.
Friday, May 8, 7pm
Kala Art Institute
2990 San Pablo Avenue, Berkeley, CA
Sliding scale $5 – $15
Refreshments will be served
Screening followed by Q&A with the filmmakers