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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.
“I imagined you’ve seen lots of prison everything so it’s a bit intimidating to send you anything for fear I’m just repeating,” said the anonymous tip off in my inbox. The link was to a film entirely new to me. It blew me away and will you too.
Jonathan Borofsky, famous in recent years for a bunch of monstrous sculptures of 2-D men (usually hammering the air), made Prisoners in 1985. It’s one of the best prison films I’ve seen, mainly because Prisoners doesn’t weave too persistently one particular tale or one particular journey. To be reductive, I’d argue that this is the unique artist’s treatment of the subject in stark contrast to the straight documentarian’s treatment.
Generally, prison documentaries are often about trial and adversity; they necessarily have to depict struggle and hope from all angles. In other words, documentaries are often part-advocacy and answers. Borofsky just had questions. The answers the 32 California prisoners had for him in interviews will stay with you.
Part horror testimony, part philosophy, part confession, part therapy, Borofsky’s Prisoners is a tour de force. It was made in the mid-eighties just as the era of mass incarceration took hold. Back then prisoners had the same issues – poverty, drug addiction, histories of childhood abuse and adulthoods of transgression, bad circumstance and bad choices – there were just fewer of them.
The opening of the film includes atmospheric music and cuts of the more bizarre statements. It jolts. But don’t think Borofsky is setting these men and women up for a fall. Yes, his artistic hand is all over this, but he gives each of the prisoners plenty of time to pierce through our bullshit and take us right to their reality. If it seems weird, it is probably because Borofsky’s subject live weirdness every day. Borofsky let’s them speak. He shows their common institutionalisation but does not pity them.
I recently visited the International Center for Photography (ICP). I was encouraged to see a photo from Abu Ghraib alongside one of Robert Capa’s Normandy landing photos and Margaret Bourke-White’s photographs from a liberated Nazi concentration camp. All were featured in the enjoyable and current A Short History of Photography exhibition, showcasing works acquired during the tenure of outgoing Director Willis “Buzz” Hartshorn.
Just as Capa and Bourke-White’s photographs are iconic of the WWII conflict, the Abu Ghraib digital photos are iconic and the images of America’s War On Iraq.
Both Capa and Bourke-White, in these instances, were photographers in the thick of it, in the moment, to deliver important news of the day to corners of the globe. Of course, the rise of citizen journalism has put pay to the idea that roving career photographers are now the first to a scene of international significance.
Without doubt the Abu Ghraib images – given their historical and cultural significance and dissemination – are rightfully in the ICP collection. That is not the issue; my questions were about the label:
Unidentified Photographer: [Abdou Hussain Saad Faleh, nicknamed Gilligan by U.S. soldiers, made to stand on a box for about an hour and told that he would be electrocuted if he fell, Abu Ghraib prison, Iraq], November 4, 2003. INKJET PRINT. Museum Purchase, 2003 (113.2005)
Museum purchase? Who would be a recipient of payment for the image? I suspected it might be a case of language and not action. Ever interested by provenance and the accession of items into museum collections, I emailed ICP the following questions:
- Is “Museum Purchase” just a standard note you attach to works or did ICP actually hand over money to someone or some body for the image?
– Did ICP print it off the internet?
– When deciding to acquire it into the collection, what decisions were made about the file, the printing, the paper, the ink?
Kindly, Brian Wallis, the Deputy Director/Chief Curator at ICP responded:
The Abu Ghraib photograph now included in the “A Short History of Photography” was originally printed for the ICP exhibition “Inconvenient Evidence: Iraqi Prison Photographs from Abu Ghraib” (Sept. 17-Nov. 28, 2004).
At the time, only about twenty JPEGs were available, either on the Internet or from files supplied by the New Yorker.* We printed all images then available for the exhibition. They were printed on a standard Epson office printer, on standard 8½” x 11″. office paper, and pinned directly to the wall in the exhibition, in part to emphasize the ephemerality and informational nature of the pictures.
They were printed directly from the web with the understanding that these photographs, taken by U.S. government personnel, were in the public domain. We did not pay for them. The credit line in the current exhibition describes them as “museum purchase” in part because there is no other official museum description for how we obtained them; one could say we purchased the supplies used to print them.
So, no money exchanged hands. A relief of sorts. What one would expect.
I suppose ultimately, I have to give ICP some recognition for its 2004 reflex response to the pressing visual culture issue of the day; for presenting a set of images that for all intents and purposes falls outside of the normal acquisition avenues of major institutions.
ICP’s home-brew solution to show the Abu Ghraib, non-rarefied, non-editioned and thoroughly contemporary set of images is against the grain of many other museums chasing gate receipts through edutainment.
Left: Photo of allied forces landing on Normandy beaches, by Robert Capa; right: Photo of torture at Abu Ghraib, by unknown photographer.
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*Seymour Hirsch, who wrote Torture at Abu Ghraib (May, 2004) for the New Yorker, also provide the text for ICP’s Inconvenient Evidence exhibition – the catalogue for which you can download as a PDF
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All images: Pete Brook and taken without permission.
Jim Linderman just posted some original 1950s mugshots from Brooklyn, NY on Dull Tool Dim Bulb (one of my favourite photography blogs).
Of the images he says:
“Given attitudes, practices and institutional racism from 50 plus years ago, these sharp-dressers might have been just walking to work.”
Possibly, but we will probably never know the circumstances of their arrests.
I am fascinated by the tilted heads of many of the detained men and women. I read a hell of a lot of knowing defiance in the way many of the subjects gaze to the camera. It’s as if they are simultaneously acknowledging the photograph as a component in the apparatus of police power and the primary record of that unequal power. As such, they don’t hide or shrink but confront the photographic act.
All photos: Group of Original Mug Shot Photographs, New York City 1949 – 1955 Collection Jim Linderman
There were two categories of interviewees I planned to connect with during PPOTR – photographers and prison reformers. I didn’t expect to meet many individuals who satisfied both definitions. Ruth Morgan does.
Morgan became director of Community Works, a restorative justice arts program in the San Francisco Bay Area in 1994. Prior to that, she was director of the Jail Arts Program, in the San Francisco County Jail system (1980-1994).
It should be noted that the county jail system is entirely different to the state prison system and operate under separate jurisdictions. County jails hold shorter term inmates.
For three remarkable years, Morgan and her colleague Barbara Yaley had free reign of San Quentin State Prison to interview and photograph the men. In 1979, it was the sympathetic Warden George Sumner who provided Morgan and Yaley access. In 1981, a new Warden at San Quentin abruptly cut-off access.
“I think there were a few reasons [we were successful],” explains Morgan. “Despite the fact I was a young woman, I had a big 2-and-a-quarter camera and a tripod and so they took me seriously. That helped us get the portraits and the stories we did.”
The San Quentin News (Vol. I.II, Issue 11, June, 1982) reported on Morgan and Yaley’s activities. The story Photo-Documentary Team Captures Essence of SQ can be read on page 3 of this PDF version of the newspaper.
Ruth and I talk about how the demographics of prison populations remain the same; her original attraction to the topic; the use of her photographs in the important Toussaint v. McCarthy case (1984) brought by the Prison Law Office against poor conditions in segregation cells of four Northern California prisons; why she never published the photos of men on San Quentin’s Death Row; and the emergence, funding for, and power of restorative justice.
In 1972, Joshua Freiwald was commissioned by San Francisco architecture firm Kaplan & McLaughlin to photograph the spaces within Clinton Correctional Facility in the town of Dannemora, NY.
In the wake of the Attica uprising in September of 1971, the New York Department of Corrections commissioned Kaplan & McLaughlin to asses the prison’s design as it related to the safety of the prison, staff and inmates. The NYDoC wanted to avoid another rebellion.
The most astounding sight within Dannemora was the terrace of “courts” sandwiched between the exterior wall and the prison yard. It is thought the courts began as garden plots in the late twenties or early thirties, although there is no official mention of their existence until the 1950s.
Simply, the most remarkable example of a prisoner-made environment I have ever come across.
The courts were the focus of Ron Roizen’s 55 page report to the NYDoC on the situation at Clinton Correctional Facility. Sociologist Roizen, also hired by Kaplan & McLaughlin, conducted interviews with inmates over a period of five days:
“Inmates waited months, sometimes even years, to gain this privilege. The groups would gather during yard time to shoot the breeze, cook, eat, smoke, and generally ‘get away from’ the rigors and boredom of prison life.”
In the same five days, Freiwald took hundreds of photographs at Dannemora. Eight of those negatives were scanned earlier this month and are published online here for the first time.
“Since I’d taken these photographs, I’ve come to realize that these are something quite extraordinary in my own medium, and represent for me a moment in time when I did something important. I can’t say for sure why they’re important, or how they’re important, but I know they’re important,” says Freiwald.
Freiwald and I discuss the social self-organisation of the inmates around the courts, his experiences photographing, the air “thick” with tension and surveillance, the spectre of evil, and how structures like the courts simply do not exist in modern prisons.
All images © Joshua Freiwald
All images © Joshua Freiwald
Poster created by the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) advocating support of prison rebellions, and the abolishment of alleged racist prison terror. Source: Wisconsin Historical Society
The most famous prison rebellion in American history began in the early hours of September 9th, 1971.
I wanted to share an image of this poster and ask you if you can imagine this type of visual being used today. It wouldn’t happen. Universities are less and less incubators for radical action; prison issues are rarely incorporated into overarching critiques of capitalism; and, sad to say, solidarity and Socialist motifs are derided in today’s media culture of garish graphics, breasts, comments of misdirection and ridiculous 24-hr coverage.
Not wanting to end on a down note, these groups are working against our society of excessive, blaring infotainment. Check them out.