You are currently browsing the category archive for the ‘Historical’ category.
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.
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.
Kickstarter reward at the $25-level. Poster: “A MIRROR OF GREATNESS, BLURRED” (Edition of 50, hand numbered, signed by artist, 20″ x 24″)
Cathedral Rocks – 2600 feet. Yosemite Valley, Mariposa County, California. © Carleton Watkins
White Bread Monument. © Lochman & Ciurej. Ingredients: Soft White Bimboo, Clear Value Round Top White Bread, Roundy’s White Enriched Bread, Roundy’s Sandwich White Enriched, Sarah Lee White Bread.
HISTORY, NATURE AND LANDSCAPE PHOTOGRAPHY
Today, June 30th, marks the 150th anniversary of The Yosemite Grant, signed by Abraham Lincoln, putting the protection of Yosemite Valley into the hands of the state of California with ‘the express conditions that the premises shall be held for public use, resort, and recreation, for all of time. The grant was a precursor to land-use-law that later led to the establishment of the National Parks.
There can be no photographer better known for the early exploration of the American West as Carleton Watkins (1829-1916). Nor is there a mid-to-late 19th century photographer (Ansel Adams did his bit later!) who shaped public opinion about natural spaces as much as Watkins.
What would Watkins say about the RVs that roll into Yosemite and Yellowstone each year? What would Watkins say about the monoculture agribusiness that dominates large swathes of the United States’ land? What would Watkins make of the ubiquity of corn syrup in our diets?
“The series Processed Views interprets the frontier of industrial food production, the seductive and alarming intersection of nature and technology,” write Lindsay Lochman & Barbara Ciurej in their artist statement. As we move further away from the natural sources of our food, we head into uncharted territory replete with unintended consequences for the environment and for our health.”
Processed Views is a witty and painstakingly constructed project that gets at some serious issues. What were Lochman and Ciurej thinking? Exactly how did they piece together these distopic dioramas that drip with E-numbers? Scroll down for our Q&A to find out.
Agassiz Rock and the Yosemite Falls, from Union Point, No. 844, about 1878, Albumen silver print, 54.4 x 39.2 cm, The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, 2004.70. © Carleton Watkins.
Red Flamin’ Hot Monolith. © Lochman & Ciurej. Ingredients: Jay’s Barbecue Potato Chips, Fritos Corn Chips, O-ke-doke Cheese Flavored Popcorn, Chester’s Flamin’ Hot Puffcorn, Funyuns Onion Flavored Rings (plain and Flamin’ Hot), Jay’ Hot Stuff Potato Chips, Cheetos Puffs and Flamin’ Hot CrunchyDoritos Nacho Cheese, Mission Party Chips, Krunchers Kettle Cooked Potato Chips, Mission Chicharrones (Pork Rinds).
Q & A
Prison Photography (PP): You’re talking about industrial food production. Is this a concern to you specifically because you are Midwest based?
Lochman & Ciurej (L&C): We built these views to examine consumption, progress and the changing landscape.
As Midwesterners, we have seen the landscape transformed from family farming to agricultural industry. This is not exclusive to the heartland, however, Big Ag and food processing facilities cross the country. In Processed Views: Surveying the Industrial Landscape, we are thinking about trends in consumption, ideas of progress and the changing geography of our country.
We came to Processed Views from an earlier project which addressed the nature of nurturing. In those photographs, we were interested in picturing the emotional and physical energy that flows through the act of preparing and sharing food. We could not ignore, however, the flip-side of food consumption in America: a complex, impersonal system of industrial agriculture, food processing and marketing.
PP: Why use Watkin’s images as the conduit to these issues?
L&C: Watkins’ sublime views framed the American West as a land of endless possibilities and significantly influenced the creation of the first national parks.
However, many of Watkins’ photographs were commissioned by the corporate interests of the day; the Central Pacific Railroad, the Oregon Steam Navigation Company, North Bloomfield Mining and Gravel Company and other lumber and milling interests. His commissions served as both documentation of and advertisement for the American West. Watkins’ images upheld the popular 19th century view of Manifest Destiny – the inevitability of America’s bountiful land, justifiably utilized and consumed by its citizens.
Albion River, 1863. © Carleton Watkins.
Fruit Loops Landscape. © Lochman & Ciurej. Ingredients: General Mills Trix with Fruitalicious Swirls, Kellogg’s Froot Loops.
Marshmallow Chasm. © Lochman & Ciurej. Ingredients: Kraft Jet-Puffed Marshmallows, Kraft Jet-Puffed Miniatures, Trust Classic Pure Mishri Sugar.
Nevada Falls, 700 Ft., Yosemite. © Carleton Watkins.
L&C: June 2014 marks the 150th anniversary of the Yosemite Valley Grant Act, legislation that preserved the land for public use and set a precedent for America’s National Park System.
PP: Given the anniversary, Processed Views was good timing, no?
Stanford’s Cantor Arts Center presents an exhibition Carleton Watkins: The Stanford Albums (April 23–August 17, 2014) in celebration. Tyler Greene recently interviewed curators and scholars, Alexander Nemerov, Erik Steiner and Corey Keller, associated with the exhibition.
PP: You’re fans of Watkins?
L&C: We turn to history and mythology to clarify and anchor our research.
Looking back 150 years, Carleton Watkins iconic photographs honored unsullied nature and documented human behavior on the frontier. They were a revelation at that time. His images record a critical time in the ongoing relationship between industrial development and conservation. We are at another such a moment now and the current discourse is fractured. How can the state of our health, industrial agriculture, chemistry, biological modification of plants and livestock, water and land use, finite natural resources, demographic and geographical change be included in a single conversation?
Referencing Watkins’ sublime views and sites of nascent technological activity in California and Oregon, are an invitation to viewer to consider an alternate reality in which the trajectory of our agricultural production is taken to an extreme. We fast forward to seductive, garish and static monocultures.
We allude to Watkins’ far vista in our tabletop landscapes, hinting at vastness, yet stranding the viewer in a swale of familiar processed food products. The photographer’s 18″ x 22″ Mammoth Plate Views were extraordinarily large and detailed in their time, but are now considered small. We use this format to force the viewer into an intimate encounter with the average American diet. We have oversold our technological commitment to bend the forces of nature in order to fulfill fantasies of a yummy life and heroic expectations of feeding the world. Should we rethink our fun-food utopia?
The Town on the Hill, New Almaden. © Carleton Watkins.
Saturated Fat Foothills. © Lochman & Ciurej. Ingredients: Full Side Pork Chicharrones, Proscuitto Ham.
Castle Rock, Columbia River, 1867. (Alternate Title: Pacific Coast views. No. 1243). © Carleton Watkins.
Deep Fried Bluffs. © Lochman & Ciurej. Ingredients: OreIda shoestrings, McCain Seasoned Crinkle Cut, Armour Lard, Oscar Meyer Bacon.
PP: Were Watkins’ landscapes pure?
L&C: An answer to this question is as vast and deep as Yosemite Valley!
Most recent thought regarding landscape is defined by scholars like Lucy Lippard in The Lure of the Local: Senses of Place in a Multicentered Society. Landscape is not just an aesthetic experience, it must be thought of in terms of community, land use, contemporary perceptions of nature, what is produced on the land and how it shapes the inhabitants through time. Rebecca Solnit’s writing projects Infinite City and Unfathomable City are exquisite examples of this approach.
Tyler Greene discusses Carleton Watkins’ photographs and the transformation of California agriculture a century-and-a-half later in a recent New York Times Lens blogpost.
In the book Print the Legend: Photography and the American West, Martha A. Sandweiss provides a great in-depth discussion of the motivation behind of 19th-century landscape photography.
Cola Sea. © Lochman & Ciurej. Ingredients: Domino Pure Cane Granulated Sugar, Brer Rabbit Molasses, CocaCola, C&H Golden Brown Cane Sugar, C&H Pure Cane Powdered Sugar, Trust Classic Pure Mishri Sugar, Rock Candy.
Sugarloaf Islands at Fisherman’s Bay, Farallon Islands, about 1869, Albumen silver print, 41 x 54.3 cm, The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, 85.XM.11.22. © Carleton Watkins.
Monoculture Plains. © Lochman & Ciurej. Ingredients: Corn Flakes, White and Yellow Corn Meal, Corn, Cobs and Husks.
Cape Horn, Columbia River, Oregon, negative, 1867; print by Isaiah West Taber, about 1881-83, Albumen silver print, 40.5 x 52.3 cm, The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, 85.XM.11.2. © Carleton Watkins.
PP: What for you are the main concerns about industrial food production?
L&C: Processed Views reflects our concern with current trends in consumption, ideas of progress and the changing geography of our country. All indications are that we are headed into an uncharted, unbalanced, unnatural territory. This terrain is garnished with unintended consequences for our health and for the environment. Why must we thoughtlessly degrade the soil by our technological-agricultural experiments? We must re-evaluate our man-made “utopias”.
PP: Where can we read more on these issues?
L&C: There are striking stories daily, many of them contradictory. We record ideas in our food-based notebook (blog). Recent posts mention books, articles and websites addressing the American diet (Nina Teicholz, Michael Moss, NPR’s The Salt blog) and industrial agriculture: corn production and marketing, meat processing (Christopher Leonard, Maureen Ogle), photography and social history.
PP: Thank you both.
L&C: Thanks, Pete.
A tiled illustrated graphic of the various ingredients used to make Processed Views. © Lindsay Lochman & Barbara Ciurej.
Barbara Ciurej and Lindsay Lochman began collaborating when they met as students at the Institute of Design in Chicago+Illinois Institute of Technology. Through photographic projects they explore the confluence of history, myth and popular culture. Their photographs have been in numerous solo and group exhibits and are in the collections of the Art Institute of Chicago, the Walker Art Center and the Milwaukee Art Museum.
© Leon Collin
EARLY 20TH CENTURY CRIMINAL EXILE
Some enchanting photographs among the collection of Dr. Léon Collin. The problem is that not all are benign and not all were intended to be enchanting. Some were meant to outrage. The photographs of Dr. Collin recently surfaced after decades in the dusty attic of the Collin family home in Saône-et-Loire, France.
The visual difference and the enjoyment allowed by this historical (detached?) collection reminds me of those well-loved Australian police
mugshots portraits. Beautiful character studies from absolutely abject circumstances.
PHOTOS AGAINST ABUSE
Between 1906 and 1911, Dr. Léon Collin made thousands of glass plates and manuscripts depicting the life of prisoners — from their departure from (outpost island) Île de Ré to their imprisonment in French Guiana or New Caledonia penal colonies.
Most of his photographs he made during crossings of the ocean, but Collin also made certain to make pictures on land, in the penal colonies. He was outraged by the harsh living conditions and, once, anonymously submitted his photographs to Le Petit Journal Illustré to denounce and expose awful conditions.
What an inspiring early political use of imagery. Although, I doubt they had much change-making effect. The intent was there.
HOW DID THEY GET TO THIS SCREEN?
Collin’s grandson Philippe Collin discovered the boxes. The Musée Nicéphore Niépce de Châlon-sur-Saône digitize them. Philippe Collin sold the rights to the city of Saint-Laurent. In anticipation of an upcoming exhibition at the future Centre d’interprétation de l’Architecture et du Patrimoine (CIAP). So far, nearly 150 photographs of Guyana prison camps have been brought together for the CIAP show. CIAP is built on the site of a former transit camp. Today, they photos landed on l’Oeil de la Photographie which has a dozen examples and I couldn’t help myself.
Thanks to Hester for the tip.
Memories of the Southern Civil Rights Movement
2014 is the 50th anniversary of the passage of The Civil Rights Act, the landmark legislation that prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex or national origin.
Danny Lyon was the first staff photographer — between 1962 and 1964 — for the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). Lyon would go on to make some of the most important bodies of work about the American condition (The Bikeriders; Conversations With The Dead) and as such his very early work as a very young man is often overlooked.
The Etherton Gallery’s exhibition ‘Danny Lyon: Memories of the Southern Civil Rights Movement’ opened on Saturday and shows 50 silver gelatin prints from Selma, Birmingham, and Montgomery, Alabama; Albany, Georgia; and Danville, Virginia. We see images of student protests and mobilization against racism, lunch counter sit-ins, student beatings, tear gassings, the jailing of Martin Luther King Jr., and the unscheduled visit of a young Bob Dylan to SNCC headquarters in Greenwood, Mississippi. Lyon, was harassed, beaten and jailed during his two years as a staff photographer.
SOME THOUGHTS ON AZ
Where better to look back on an era in which society treated people with different coloured skin than in modern day Arizona? The passing of SB1070 in 2010 was a legislative bill that essentially permitted veiled racism and racial profiling. In activism, folks are always on the look out for new allies and for audiences who really need to hear the message. A message of anti-racism message and some historical perspective is vital for residents of Arizona currently. I’m not saying that people of Arizona are inherently racist; I am saying the services and institutions that claim to serve them have procedures that result in racist acts.
There are some fine activists in Arizona (they’ve necessarily and wonderfully organised) and this is particularly true of Tucson and some clever geographer-activist-academics. May Lyon’s photographs play their part in making Arizonans and us angry. Lyon would want nothing more than his show to leave us rageful at our society of inequality.
Etherton Gallery, 135 S. 6th Ave, Tucson, AZ 85701 Tel: 520.624.7370. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
‘Danny Lyon: Memories of the Southern Civil Rights Movement’ runs through March 15, 2014.
All photos: Danny Lyon © Dektol.wordpress.com. Courtesy of the Etherton Gallery
REST IN PEACE, PETE
Musician, folklorist and champion of the vernacular Pete Seeger died Monday. His legacy is formidable. The New York Times wrote:
His agenda paralleled the concerns of the American left: He sang for the labor movement in the 1940s and 1950s, for civil rights marches and anti-Vietnam War rallies in the 1960s, and for environmental and antiwar causes in the 1970s and beyond. “We Shall Overcome,” which Mr. Seeger adapted from old spirituals, became a civil rights anthem.
Part of Seeger’s widespread collection of folk songs took him, in March 1966, to the Ellis Unit of Huntsville Prison in Texas.
He traveled south with his wife and constant ally Toshi and their son Daniel. Bruce Jackson also joined them.
Afro-American Work Songs In a Texas Prison (30 mins.) documents the music African American prisoners used to survive the grueling work demanded of them. The prison work songs derive directly from those used by slaves and plantations and those directly from West African agricultural models.
Bruce Jackson wrote in his notes about the film:
“Black slaves used work songs in the plantations exactly as they had used them before they had been taken prisoner and sold to the white men. The difference was this: in Africa the songs were used to time body movements and to give poetic voice to things of interest because people wanted to do their work that way; in the plantations there was added a component of survival. If a man were singled out as working too slowly, he would often be brutally punished. The songs kept everyone together, so no one could be singled out as working more slowly than everyone else.”
Mechanization and integration of farming and forestry methods would soon lead to the disappearance of the work songs. There was an urgency to record them.
I spoke with Jackson in late 2011, when he said, “It is, to my knowledge, the only treatment (of that genre and era) that had ever been done. It was Pete’s idea and Pete paid for it.”
Seeger understood the contradiction. A significant type of folk music — a music that reflected the very survival of an oppressed group — was soon to be consigned to the history books, and yet that loss signified an improvement in their circumstances. As the film’s narration notes:
“The songs are still there but sometimes something is missing. The urgency is eased. Gone is that tension born of the original pain and irony of the situation that a man who could not sing and keep rhythm might die. The prison is the only place left in the country where the work songs survives. And it’s days are numbered. Another generation or two and its only source will be the archives. But given the conditions that produced the songs and maintained them for so long one can hardly regret their passing.”
Seeger understood people’s stories are wrapped up in their art. And with it their dignity. His curiosity was a rare and beautiful thing.
A NOTE ON JACKSON
Bruce Jackson is a prolific prison photographer. Most of his work was made in the sixties and seventies in the South, from his Widelux images at Cummins Prison, his collected mugshots from Arkansas, his 1977 book Killing Time: Life in the Arkansas Penitentiary (Cornell) and his very recent 2013 book Inside The Wire (University of Texas Press) about Texas and Southern prison farms. Bruce Jackson’s book Wake Up Dead Man (University of Georgia Press) is a highly recommended study of work songs in Texas prisons.
From ‘Assisted Self-Portraits’ (2002-2005) by Anthony Luvera.
PHOTOGRAPHY’S NOT JUST DEPICTION!
There’s a fascinating discussion to be had at Aperture Gallery this Saturday December 7th. Collaboration – Revisiting the History of Photography curated by Ariella Azoulay, Wendy Ewald, and Susan Meiselas is an effort to draft the first ever timeline of collaborative photographic projects. Items on the timeline have been submitted either by members of the public or uncovered during research by Azoulay, Ewald, Meiselas and grad students from Brown University and RISD.
“The timeline includes close to 100 projects assembled in different clusters,” says the press release. “Each of these projects address a different aspect of collaboration: 1. the intimate “face to face” encounter between photographer and photographed person; 2. collaborations recognized over time; 3. collaboration as the production of alternative and common histories; 4. as a means of creating new potentialities in given political regimes of violence; 5. as a framework for collecting, preserving and studying existing images as a basis for establishing civil archives for unrecognized, endangered or oppressed communities; 6. as a vantage point to reflect on relations of co-laboring that are hidden, denied, compelled, imagined or fake.
Within the gallery space, Ewald and co. will discuss the projects and move images, quotes and archival documents belonging to the projects about the wall “as a large modular desktop.”
The day will create the first iteration of the timeline which will continue to be added to.
“In this project we seek to reconstruct the material, practical and political conditions of collaboration through photography — and of photography — through collaboration,” continues the press release. “We seek ways to foreground – and create – the tension between the collaborative process and the photographic product by reconstructing the participation of others, usually the more *silent* participants. We try to do this through the presentation of a large repertoire of types of collaborations, those which take place at the moment when a photograph is taken, or others that are understood as collaboration only later, when a photograph is reproduced and disseminated, juxtaposed to another, read by others, investigated, explored, preserved, and accumulated in an archive to create a new database.”
I applaud this revisioning of photo-practice; I only wish I was in NYC to join the discussion.
As you know, I celebrate photographers and activists who involve prisoners in the design and production of work. And I’m generally interested in photographers who have long-form discussions with their subjects … to the extent that they are no longer subjects but collaborators instead.
Photographic artists Mark Menjivar, Eliza Gregory, Gemma-Rose Turnbull and Mark Strandquist are just a few socially engaged practitioners/artists who are keen on making connections with people through image-making. They’ve also included me in their recent discussions about community engagement across the medium. I feel there’s a lot of thought currently going into finding practical responses to the old (and boring) dismissals of detached documentary photography, and into finding new methodologies for creating images.
At this point, this post is not much more than a “watch-this-space-post” so just to say, over the coming weeks, it will be interesting to see the first results from the lab. If you’re free Saturday, and in New York, this is a schedule you should pay attention to:
1:00-2:00 – Visit the open-lab + short presentations by Azoulay, Ewald and Meiselas.
2:00-2:45 – Discussion groups, one on each cluster with the participation of one of the research assistant.
2:45-4:00 – Groups’ presenting their thoughts on each grouping.
4:00-4:30 – Coffee!
4:30-6:00 – Open discussion.
6:00 – Reception.
If any of you make it down there and have the chance, please let me know what you think and thought of the day.
I’ve been stumbling across some mind-blowingly novel prison photographs recently. This incredible Facebook Album by Steve Milanowski fell on my radar and the colour is something special.
Milanowski photographed at three prisons during the eighties — Walpole, Massachusetts (1981, 1982); Ionia, Michigan (1984); and Jackson, Michigan (1985). In 2012, he began shooting the outside of Waupun Correctional Institution in Wisconsin. In each case, Milanowski was working independently and not on assignment.
As colourful and characterful as these images are it’s worth bearing in mind that prisons of this era were beginning to creek. Dangerous overcrowding existed in Michigan prisons in the early eighties, and Jackson in particularly was renowned as a tough prison with gangs and enforced convict codes.
These prison photographs have, up to this point, only had limited circulation. Some feature in Milanowski’s book Duplicity, others on his website. A few photographs have appeared in museum exhibitions around the country. I wanted to know more, so I dropped Steve a line with some questions.
Scroll down for our Q&A.
Prison Photography (PP): Where did your interest in prisons come from?
Steve Milanowski (SM): It dates back to my childhood: my dad was an attorney in Michigan and very occasionally had clients that he had to visit in prison. When I was in 5th and 6th grades, maybe twice, he took me along (taking me out of classes) on the prison/client visits. For a 6th grader, these visits were absolutely unforgettable. Indelible. This was an environment that was utterly foreign to my existence. It was almost as if my eyes weren’t fast enough to take it all in. To a kid, nothing in the world looks like a prison.
PP: What was the purpose of your visits the these four prisons?
SM: Simply to make new photographs in places that have mostly been, in the past, photographed with visual cliche and with the perceived grittiness of black and white films.
PP: How did you gain access?
SM: My first permission was with Walpole in Massachusetts. I sent a letter to the Walpole warden; it was written on MIT stationary. I was a graduate student at MIT and I think the name helped in getting me access. I found that once one gets permission to photograph in a prison — that permission leads to more permission. I used the Walpole photographs in gaining access to Jackson and Ionia prisons. No negotiations were needed; they all gave me fairly easy access. Initially, I only asked for single-visit access.
PP: How would you characterize the atmosphere of the prisons?
SM: The atmosphere was taut, tough and difficult at most turns — very regimented and formal. In some instances, I was assigned a female escort which made my shooting more difficult because the inmates had no hesitation in shouting out awful, obscene things; and, the female escorts seemed bent on proving that they were not bothered or intimidated by these nasty shout-outs.
PP: How does this body of work relate to your other projects and your philosophy/approach to photography generally?
SM: I consider my work to be the work of a portraitist. My prison portraits are stylistically in line with the portrait work that I pursue “out in public” at public demonstrations, holiday parades, festivals, fairs, and competitions.
PP: What were the reactions of the staff to your photography?
SM: I never really sought out their reactions. My photographs did seem to always successfully get me more access though.
PP: What were the reactions of the prisoners?
SM: Never really got reactions, per se. But with each portrait, I offered a free print if they wrote me a request and visually described themselves; some inmates wrote back and praised the images. Some seemed to want to start a pen pal relationship, just because, it seemed, some inmates had few contacts with the outside world.
PP: What is your personal opinion of prisons? Have they changed since you visited in the eighties?
SM: Prisons, then and now, in America, seem to continue to be warehouses; I think most Americans are aware of the fact that we, as a nation, have one of the largest prison populations in the world — and that we incarcerate at a level that far exceeds almost all other nations.
Have prisons changed? One change I’ve noticed with great concern is the concept and use of Supermax prisons which seems to be uniquely American. With older prisons as well as Supermax prisons, we seem to never be willing to spend much money on reducing recidivism.
The conservative right loves to convey the idea that they are tough on crime — tough prisons, tough sentencing, and the idea of “throw away the key.” So, our prison populations grow, and we build more prisons than any other nation. We’ve seen the expansion. And the Democrats? They do their best to avoid being tagged as “soft on crime.”
PP: What are Americans’ feeling toward crime and punishment?
SM: Americans very much ignore prisons and prison life — unless they live near a prison where the prison is the source of some level of local employment. Americans seem to only take notice of prisons when there is a problem, an escape, a prison disturbance (that receives national media attention), or when there is some breakdown in the system.
There seems to be a real void in political or community leadership especially in the realm of education as a path to reducing crime and reducing prison populations; the idea gets plenty of lip service.
PP: What role has photography in telling publics about prisons? Is it an effective tool?
SM: I think photography can help — and be an effective tool in informing the public about prisons and who inhabits American prisons; but, I’m not sure at all that our society wants to look at prisons and prison life … its too easy to ignore.
PP: What camera and film did you use?
SM: 4×5 Linhof and 4×5 Kodak and Fuji color negative. Sometimes a Pentax 6×7 with Fuji and Kodak color negative film. And, always combining flash with ambient light.
PP: The color you introduce is unusual for prison photographs. From looking at your other work, it is clear you revel in colour portraits. Were you aware that you were making unique images; splashing color all over these darkened corners of US society?
SM: Unique images? Well you have hit on something that was a primary intention: I wanted to make photographs that told you something new. Pictures you hadn’t seen before. Prison photography is rife with cliches. I thought if I were given access to prisons, I’d make different photographs. I was not arrogant about this — just determined to make images that had not been seen before.
I was determined, self-directed and wanted to get as many photographs as I could accomplish in, typically, a 1 to 2 hour visit. I limited my talk and conversations — I was on a mission.
Steve Milanowski is a photographer and, with Bob Tarte, co-author of Duplicity, a monograph of his own portraits. Milanowski earned his BFA from The Cranbrook Academy of Art and his MS from The Creative Photography Laboratory at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. His photographs are part of the permanent collections of The Museum of Modern Art, National Gallery of Art, The Houstin Museum of Fine Arts, The High Museum of Art, and The Polaroid Collection and numerous public collections. MoMA published his work in Celebrations and Animals; his work was also included in MoMA’s recent survey of late 20th century photography in the newly reinstalled Edward Steichen galleries.