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© Ronnie Goodman
ARTS AND RECIDIVISM
“Evidence suggests that arts-in-prisons programs lower recidivism (returning to prisons) by 27% and reduce disciplinary actions by 75%,” reads the press release for the prison art exhibition The Cell and the Sanctuary: Art and Incarceration currently on show at the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History (SCMAH).
That’s a bold claim.
One of the great difficulties with justifying arts and/or liberal arts education is the difficulty in measuring its direct (positive) effects. Evaluation in budget-constrained prison systems is especially demanding and cynical. First and foremost, people want to know if any type of program steers a prisoner away from anti-social behaviour. If the answer is complex, partly elusive or complicated by other criteria then doubt descends, the enterprise is labeled as airy-fairy, and premise is dismissed.
In brief, prison arts programs wanting to prove themselves have a tough audience.
The effects of arts and education is difficult to track because many benefits such as relative thinking, critical engagement outside of institutional narratives, cumulative learning, etc. take years. Education is a slow build. Benefits are for years down the line; for a lifetime. Also, many prisoners are on long sentences and the primary criteria corrections departments and researchers look to – recidivism – can only be measured once a prisoner is released. The intangibles of a liberal arts education aren’t necessarily contributing to a measurable impact the next hour.
A general aura of skepticism surrounding arts and liberal arts education is compounded by the fact that research money often goes toward other prison programming (vocational, prison industries) and other evaluation first. We saw this was the case when the State of California stripped the DOC of its Arts-In-Corrections funding 7-years ago. In times of crisis, arts funding is first on the chopping block.
Despite no state funding, groups such as the William James Association continued, driven by volunteer efforts. The recent California budget has put millions back into the coffers earmarked for Arts-In-Corrections. The William James Association has returned to work in 11 state prisons.
The return was helped by the convincing results of a study, California Prison Arts Evaluation 2014, that was commissioned jointly by the William James Association and the California Lawyers for the Arts. You can download it here.
Here’s the results of the study and reason for bold claims.
The California Prison Arts Evaluation 2014 was a one-year study in four prisons revealing that arts programs improve prisoners’ behavior and their attitudes about themselves.
“A significant majority of inmates attribute their greater confidence and self-discipline to pursue other academic and vocational opportunities to their participation in arts programs, signaling a pathway for overall personal growth,” says the William James Association.
A BRIEF HISTORY OF RESEARCH
The author was Dr. Lawrence Brewster of the University of San Francisco who had, in 2012, completed a Qualitative Study of the California Arts In Corrections Program.
Prior to these two studies, there had been little research since a cost-benefit study in 1983, An Evaluation of the Arts-in-Corrections Program of the California Department of Corrections (also conducted by Brewster), which posited that society and the institutions benefited by reduced disciplinary actions, community service and beautification of the prisons.
It was high time someone brought the research up to date and dampened down naysayers and skeptics. Hopefully, the California Prison Arts Evaluation 2014 might spur other states to make a return to arts programming.
“Arts-in-prisons programs improve relationships between people within the prison as well as with guards and supervisory staff,” says the William James Association.” Prisoners exposed to arts programs are more likely to adjust to life outside prison and are less likely to become repeat offenders.”
‘Blind Curve’ (2010) © Felix Lucero
‘Lower Yard, San Quentin’ @ Ronnie Goodman
‘Baseball at Old Folsom Prison’ @ Ronnie Goodman
© Justus Evans
‘Obscuring Self’ © Rolf Kissman
‘Jazz In San Quentin’ @ Ronnie Goodman
‘Uphill Struggle’ @ Ronnie Goodman
The Cell & The Sanctuary opening, Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History, November 7th, 2014. Photo: Laurie Brooks / William James Association
‘Prison Boots’ @ Ronnie Goodman
Installation view of The Cell & The Sanctuary, Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History. Photo: Laurie Brooks / William James Association
THE CELL AND THE SANCTUARY
The Cell and The Sanctuary features paintings, drawings, sculptures and writings by teachers, artists and organizations who are “working together within the prison system to provide a direct link between incarcerated individuals and something larger than their dehumanizing cells,” says SCMAH.
Artists including Ronnie Goodman, Justus Evans, Felix Lucero and Rolf Kissman (whose works are included in this post) are in the exhibition, as well as Ned Axthelm, Peter Bergne, Guillermo Willie, Stan Bey, Khalifah Christensen, Dennis Crookes, Isiah Daniels, Bruce Fowler, Henry Frank, Roy Gilstrap, Thomas Grider, Gary Harrell, Amy M. Ho, John Hoskings, David Johnson, Ben Jones, Richard Kamler, Chung Kao, Darryl Kennedy, Katya McCollah, Pat Messy, Omid Mokri, Gerald Morgan, Carol Newborg, Stan Newborg, James Norton, Eric “Phil” Phillips, Anthony Marco Ramirez, Adrienne Skye Roberts, Mark Stanley, Fred Tinsley, Tan Tran, Kurt Von Staden, Geno Washington, Michael Williams, Thomas Winfrey, and Noah Wright
It is on show November 7, 2014 – February 22, 2015
Senseless © Felix Lucero
Happy Halloween, folks. Here’s a fun series. Photographer Neil DaCosta went to Oregon’s kookiest Halloween attractions during daylight closing hours. However, the scenes he discovered and shot on color film ended up looking as sinister as they appear when shrouded in darkness and staged for the frightened masses.
Week to week, DaCosta works long hours as a commercial and editorial photographer. But that doesn’t stop him throwing his camera gear in the car and heading out on his free weekends to shoot personal projects. Shooting stuff to scratch his creative itch is what has kept him sane. At least that was the case until last weekend when his excursions to into haunted houses, forests and corn mazes may have just driven him over the edge.
The ghastly result is a series called With The Lights On.
It all started harmlessly enough. DaCosta stumbled across a haunted trail walking his dog and reasoned that photographing halloween attractions during daylight hours would make for interesting pictures.
“When I was younger, I use to volunteer at a similar haunted trail and remembered how spooky it was even during the day,” he says.
Despite his ghoulish memories of younger experience, DaCosta thought a throughly mature and deliberate diurnal examination of the sites would reveal them for the low-budget, facade dependent constructions they are. DaCosta thought his images would draw back the curtain.
And, so, DaCosta trudged with his 4×5 camera to the West Linn Haunted Trail, the Fear Asylum, and The Haunted Maize — tourist spots all within half-an-hour of his hometown, Portland.
“I captured them empty, during off hours, with the lights on,” explains DaCosta. “But the dark humor I was envisioning, ended up being just more dark than humorous. Goes to show that some of our fears don’t rely on the dark to manifest.”
Photographing on site was eerie. Dead dummies swung and tarps billowed in the dank air. DaCosta got the jitters which were not helped by joggers in the forests who crept up while he was under the dark cloth of his medium format camera.
Those that operated the attractions were welcoming. “Everyone was in to it. Owners put a lot of work into these haunts and they are only seasonal. They are excited someone wants to photograph their hard work,” says DaCosta.
Like all good Halloween antics, DaCosta’s unsettling images jangle the nerves and provide relief and laughter.
Being a procrastinator, DaCosta has yet to decide on his costume for tonight, but he’ll be channelling photographer Joel Peter Witkin, who is his favorite macabre showman.
Happy Halloween folks! Enjoy these pics and then get out there, Trick ‘o’ Treat, and spook some people!
The Magnum Foundation Photography & Human Rights Fellowship is an all expenses-paid scholarship for non-western, regional photographers and activists to attend the Photography & Human Rights summer program at New York University.
Over the past 5 years, 21 fellows from 15 different countries have participated in the program.
Applicants must be:
- Emerging and professional students, photographers, activists, and journalists.
– Born and live outside of North America and Western Europe.
– Proficient in speaking, reading, and writing in English.
– Demonstrated a commitment to addressing/documenting human rights issues within their home country.
For more into contact Alexis Lambrou at email@example.com or 212-219-1248
Arne Svenson, The Neighbors #11, 2012 © Arne Svenson, Courtesy Julie Saul Gallery, New York
A greater cynic than I might argue that Arne Svenson was working for the state when making photographs of his neighbors. One might suggest this not because there is any inherent value, lest any valuable information about the individuals within the snooping shots, but rather, because the brouhaha that erupted around the exhibition of The Neighbors at the Julie Saul Gallery was a distorting and damaging version of the ongoing conversation about privacy in our society.
I go on to explain how the protestations of Svenson’s (very affluent) neighbours, lawsuits and public outcry derailed us from actually seeing the more pernicious and invasive layers of surveillance we are subject to daily … and especially in New York city.
Read the 1,200 words here.
THE HILLMAN PHOTOGRAPHY INITIATIVE (HPI)
The inaugural HPI at CMOA “investigates the lifecycle of images: their creation, transmission, consumption, storage, potential loss, and reemergence. Technology accelerates the pace of this cycle, and often alters or redirects the trajectory of an image in unexpected, powerful ways.”
Transition and consumption: Love that. I’m proud to be associated with CMOA’s broader consideration of images within society. HPI is getting inside the bloodstreams of the media and changing the discussion.
Christopher Onstott is a freelance photojournalist, photo editor, and videographer working out of his native Portland, Oregon. Before he turned to image-making, he bounced around in various jobs — most of the sales. He was once high-interest loan officer, pizza delivery boy and used-car salesman. At the age of 24, he took a leap of faith and signed up for a college photo program.
I may have left Portland, but I still have friends there and interviews in the can, so here is Christopher and I talking about PDX, rural Oregon, disaster kits, the grounding effect of portraiture, setting up a business, and specifically setting up a business with your love.
In summer of last year, Christopher went inside Oregon State Penitentiary (OSP) as part of the Oregon Project Dayshoot+30. Our discussion begins there. The two images (above and directly below) are from inside OSP. Other images included are from Christopher’s portfolio.
Q & A
Prison Photography (PP): Tell us about your decision to shoot in Oregon State Penitentiary (OSP).
CO: It was with Oregon Project Dayshoot+30 which was the 30 year anniversary of a day of photographing Oregon by 90 photographers back in 1983. I own the original book One Average Day and the images that stood out to me were the penitentiary photos. In between the usual ‘day in the life’ shots, vineyards, cattle and farmer photos were photographs of a guy in his cell smoking cigarettes.
PP: What was the intrigue?
CO: Prisoners are the under-represented group in Oregon. If you think of Oregonians, you don’t think of prisoners. But they’re residents here.
PP: There’s 14 or 15 thousand people in Oregon’s state prisons these days. Thousands more in county jails.
CO: The Oregon Project Dayshoot+30 was a good reason to get access to OSP which I wouldn’t usually get access to.
I contacted the public liaison office, told them about the project, sent them to the site, sent them a couple of photos of the book that I’d taken on my phone. “Here’s what they did 30 years ago, can I come and shoot?” essentially. They did a security background check and we set up a time. I had only an hour window to shoot. The rest of the day I photographed around Salem.
CO: When I got to the prison, the gentleman I’d been emailing with was not the man I met. The man I’d been in communication with was off work sick. So, immediately there was this disconnect between what I’d asked for and what was being presented to me.
It wasn’t a good experience.
PP: How so?
CO: I wanted to photograph the residents of OSP with a documentary approach, in the vein of the original project. But, my escort’s perception was I wanted take an updated version of the photo from 30-years-ago!
He asked, “So, you want to take this picture?” as he pointed at a print-off of a camera-phone picture of a image in a book! He walked me to a cell, there were two prisoners. He told me I could only photograph one and he gave me 3 minutes. [Laughs]
PP: You had your own art director!
CO: “The image your holding is an example,” I said. “But let’s look at the whole penitentiary.” He said we were not cleared for that, because all the prisoners were about to move for count. There was no flexibility. My escort was accountable to his boss and he didn’t know what had been said before.
PP: What did the subject think about you photographing?
CO: He was totally okay with it. He thought it was cool. I got the impression he knew he was going to be photographed. He was on LWOP (Life Without Parole). Pretty docile.
PP: You think he’s seen the photograph?
CO: I don’t know. I emailed the prison a copy of the photograph in a thank you email.
PP: when you were in OSP, did you cover your tattoos up?
CO: I wore short sleeves. I don’t really think of myself as being tattooed.
PP: Believe me, the prisoners and staff noticed! Do you think there was more to be seen at OSP?
CO: Definitely, just walking in we passed so many people. There was activity and work details everywhere. I was eyeing pictures everywhere but I couldn’t take them. It’s an entire town in there, right? A cultural complex. There’s a million photographs to be made. But I was only to capture a very slim sliver of life.
Still it’s important that there’s at least a representation of prisoners as residents of Oregon 30 years from now.
PP: Shifting gears. You grew up in Oregon.
CO: Grew up in Portland, spent a year in Texas, went to college in Washington State, spent a year in Texas, worked for 4 years at the Spectrum and Daily News in St George, Utah. I couldn’t imagine living anywhere else. The weather sucks five months out of the year.
PP: There’s lots of buzz about Portland, right now.
CO: Oregon really is two different states of mind.
You’ve got the Willamette Valley and the city of Portland and then you’ve got the rest of the state. The one area that doesn’t get attention is Southeastern Oregon. Not a lot of roads, no freeways, hardly a population density. Very rural.
PP: How do you characterize the Portland photo scene?
CO: I think it’s really supportive. We’ve got ASMP Oregon and Newspace. Photographers will move work back and forth and offer one another help. But, on the otherhand, there’s a lot of photographers, so it can be competitive at the same time.
PP: Journalism, editorial?
CO: Magazines. There’s a lot of international attention on the city so we’ve people coming here asking for images. Those stories tend to lean the way of food, style travel; not hardcore news stories. There’s no tornadoes or hurricanes here!
PP: Maybe an earthquake?
CO: I’ve got my 72-hr disaster kit and spare film ready [laughs].
PP: Have you always been a photographer?
CO: No. I’ve been pizza delivery driver. Worked in my dad’s automotive shop. I was a used car sales man for four years. I’ve been a high interest loan officer. I was a bartender for two years. When my father passed away in 2001, I inherited his camera and I was left with “What do I do now?”
My father always told me to be a salesman. But I couldn’t stomach earning a living by getting one over on people. I’d never been to college, so after he died. I decided to go back to college. I was a freshman at 24-years-old! I did Photojournalism at Olympic College in Bremerton, Washington.
I took a picture of a girl’s basketball game and they ran it big in the paper and that was me hooked. [laughs]
PP: What’s easier to sell? Photographs or used cars?
CO: They’re both really hard!
PP: How do you feel about photography. Is it as bad as it’s often made out? Are you a glass half full or a glass half empty thinker.
CO: I think the glass is awesome. The fact you can wake in the morning, pick up a camera and go make a living. I don’t care if your shooting fashion or street photography or using your iPhone, you just have to make pictures. We’re a society that is devouring images.
PP: But a photographer still has to package and shape stories. Can’t just churn them out!?
CO: You still gotta be good. My degree was in visual rhetoric; saying something with an image. Manage that and you’ve accomplished something as a photographer. If you’re a one trick pony, then you’re not gonna last.
PP: I recently met Randy Olson and Melissa Farlow recently.
CO: Randy was my mentor at Missouri Photo Workshop last year.
PP: They’re a couple. There’s a few photo couples out there.
PP: Two great photographers. Yourself and Leah Nash are a couple. Is there any element of professional competition between you two?
CO: The secret to being in a relationship with another photographer is to be open to criticism and not to take it personally. If you want to grow, take honest feedback from someone who knows you really well and how you operate.
Leah and I edit one another’s work and we don’t take it personally. There’s no relationship argument to be had over photographs.
We’ve agreed not be chasing the same jobs. We’ve formed a separate company, NashCO (Leah Nash & C. Onstott) outside of our own work stylistically that’s focused on corporate and commercial work.
PP: What you working on now?
CO: Street photography. I’m carrying my camera everyday capturing people in moments.
I’ve been working on a personal project of portraits for 5-years now. Using my Hasselblad. It’s slower. Because when I was at the newspaper I was running around photographing people but not really meeting them, you know? I was encountering into people who … I wouldn’t say were marginalized … but they were people who wouldn’t normally be paid attention to by the news. I wanted to slow down.
CO: In news you’re photographing people in the highest points of achievement in their life, or at the lowest points of their life. The big award, the win at the big race, or the battle with cancer. Most of the time, we’re overlooking the median, the mean of existence.
CO: I want to give those everyday people and experiences some attention. In Nevada, New York, Utah, Washington, Oregon, California. Any time I travel, I try to make portraits.
Pick out the person who is trying not to be photographed and ask their name and their story. Often they reply, “Why me?” and my response is “Because you’re interesting.”
I’ve been the only photographer at some of the newspapers I’ve worked at. I was shooting car accidents, house fires and high school sports. My way to decompress from that is to take pictures that I wasn’t taking on the job.
CO: Used to Instagram a lot. When I got my [digital] Leica I stopped posting on Instagram so much. I try to follow people who are making good pictures because I want to be inspired. I don’t want to see pictures of peoples kids.
PP: Where do you shoot?
CO: I’ve been shooting a lot around my neighborhood, the Alberta neighborhood, because it is a gentrified ghetto. There’s a lot of collision. Walk up Alberta or Killingsworth Streets and there’s a photograph every 10 metres. But here’s the hub of Portland’s gentrification.
PP: What else keeps your eye busy?
CO: Portland Squared. It’s a project that Leah started a couple of years ago. 50 photographers. one square mile divided up into fifty squares and you spend the day shooting a square and ASMP event. Last year, they did a bigger square. 2 x 2 miles and 70 photographers. for 24 hours.
PP: Whose work do you admire here in town?
PP: Anything else to add?
CO: Don’t move to Portland! There’s too many photographers here! [Laughs]
PP: Ha! Thanks, Christopher.
CO: Thank you, Pete.
EYE ON PDX
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″)
Over the course of an evening I am watching his face. He smiles, he relaxes, he shows disgust quickly, then laughs. There are so many things to keep track of. The next day I attempt to recall and I did not, as I had wished, see amalgams but instead discreet moments. There appears to be no use for the amalgamated image in recall. Perhaps this is the reason I am making the amalgamated portrait. It is an image that does not exist for me internally.
— Notes taken by Kristan Horton during production.
Ever flailed your head back-and-forth in front of the camera to catch a blurry selfie? Of course you have. We’ve all captured head-shots of seemingly maddened selves. Kristan Horton’s self-portraits are high-end versions of the blurred selfie … peppered with existential inquiry.
For his series One For Yourself, Horton faces the troubled relationship time and photography head on. Horton says a single photo is too hard to trust, so his animalistic portraits are made by combining multiple images.
“The document is never enough,” says Horton who’s discontent borders paranoia. “I need multiple perspectives to lessen an inner feeling of distrust. I think that’s why I get involved with duration.”
How can a single frame suffice? What about everything outside of the frame? What about the moment just before? Or just after? Horton prints out hundreds of images and as he flicks through the stack, configurations and blobs catch his eye.
“I’m trying to find the parts that match up and I combine them producing a neocubist portrait,” says Horton. “It was important to arrive at a result that was definitive. I keep using the word ‘solid’ [to describe the portraits]. These are heavily worked over — there’s evidence of long hours of careful collage, and yet they appear as very spontaneous things.”
Photographs are often mistaken as some sort of mirror to truth. Yet, they are static and we’re interminably moving away from every photograph ever taken; photographs don’t come close to describing the physical reality of our world. Horton’s amalgamation of image files tears each photo from its single moment in time. He uses image files as indistinguishable part of a larger artistic statement that collapses, attacks and interrogates time.
If you think of the work as navel-gazing, it’s probably because it is informed in some way by Horton’s fascination with the immediate and the everyday.
“Since I’m usually living in the studio, it’s often the material of daily life,” says Horton. “Through these materials my observation and my preoccupations leak.”
The approach came undone, however, when Horton was an artist in residence in the remote west of Ireland.
“The studio was empty and at first this was disconcerting,” explains Horton. “Finally, I thought ‘If there’s nothing to work with then that’s the work.’ That’s when I grabbed the camera and took a shot of myself in this zero condition. In a sense, my reflexes kicked in and I designated myself as the raw material.”
From the solitary studio, Horton went on to make work on the subway in Berlin, in a backyard in Ireland, a kitchen in Canada. Wherever. Whenever. He makes portraits of others too.
The ease with which Horton fired off a hundred shots contrasts to the hard slog in post-production. The relationship of parts is not unlike cells used in drawn animation says Horton.
“A stack of clear sheets with parts of the character on each sheet,” he describes. “Looking at it from the top you just see the character together. I’m looking through the stack and trying to find where moments in time fit together.”
Fascinated by Kurt Vonnegut’s characters the Tralfamadorians who exist outside of time and by the early science fiction stories of Ray Cummings, Horton is wondering what it is to get beyond, outside of, or on top of time. He knows it’s a fruitless charge but the effort and discovery involved in pushing photography toward an impossible premise is reward enough.
“The combinations of images are without an end. To feel any kind of satisfaction under this condition I have to at least engage, and to engage until exhaustion.” he says. “Not exhausting the subject, but exhausting yourself; an exhaustive attempt to stay in step with the complexity.”
The tortured results bare resemblance to Francis Bacon paintings. A comparison Horton is quite happy with.
“Bacon once said, ‘Technique is always dissolving. The technique of recording has to all the time be remade. It’s like a continuous invention to record a fact.’ I feel the same way,” explains Horton. “I was just trying to satisfy thoughts about a state, and the result ended up looking like something out of Bacon’s oeuvre. It didn’t upset me to arrive at that.”
And the title, One For Yourself? How did he arrive at that. Sat at a Berlin Hotel Bar, Horton explained to a fellow drinker that he was working on a project that dealt with time and the self. The companion responded, ‘One for yourself, then.’
As a title, “it seemed sympathetic to the altered state of these portraits,” asserts Horton.
One For Yourself is about Horton, and of Horton, but the way it vies with the prevalence of single-shot selfies, it might just have technique for us to borrow in the description of our own time … and our own states.
Kristan Horton was born in Niagara Falls in 1971. He lives and works in Toronto. Horton uses a variety of media — including but not limited to photography — to elaborate on the ways in which movement is represented, and the ways in which things are generated and regenerated. Horton studied at Ontario College of Art and Design and the University of Guelph, where he received his MFA in 2007. Preoccupations since the 1990s include the consumption of texts and mass media, the representation of simultaneous and rotated scenes, and the visualization of power generation. Horton is well known for his photographic series Dr. Strangelove Dr. Strangelove (2003–2006), for which he recreated scenes of a Kubrick film using items from his studio. Recent photography is in a neo-cubist vein; for his 2009 series Orbits, Horton presented photos that layered multiple, rotated views of scenes from his studio. In 2010, Horton won the Art Gallery of Ontario’s Grange Prize for contemporary photography and was included in the National Gallery of Canada’s Canadian Biennial.
Prisons are but one step in the criminal justice machine. After the division and disciplining brought by a society of economic inequality, the next most abrupt interaction for U.S. citizens with state structures is likely to be that with police and other law enforcement officials. In 2012, just shy of 12,200,000 arrests were made nationwide.
That’s one arrest every 2 seconds. Arrests for marijuana-related offenses alone occurred at a rate of one every 42 seconds.
These figures does not include traffic citations.
At any given time, there are nearly 7 million American’s under correctional supervision — roughly about 2.3 million in prisons or jails and 4.6 million on probation or parole. In any given year 13 million individuals will be locked up for a given period.
Given that police are the sharp end of many of these fractious interactions, it makes sense for us to look at a body of work that focuses deeply on a single city’s police force.
Between 2003 and 2011, Matt Gunther was — on and off — effectively embedded with the Newark Police Department in New Jersey. Gunther’s resulting book Probable Cause (Schilt Publishing, 2014) is one of the most rounded, smartly edited bodies of work on police work I’ve encountered. It is, remarkably, sympathetic to all involved. The police and citizens (particularly those photographed in the precinct) are dealt an equal hand. Within its pages, the drudgery of employment meets the complex issues of social order.
You can see a 15 page preview of Probable Cause here.
Matthew Gunther and I chat about fear, persistence, allegiances, the inside-view, where a book comes from, and boozing with cops before a vice squad bust. Scroll down for our conversation.
The following Q&A has been edited from a longer conversation.
Q & A
Prison Photography (PP): You worked in Newark a long time. Did you always intend it to be a book or did that emerge as you worked?
Matthew Gunther (MG): My issue as a person or as a photographer is that I would not go the whole-nine-yards on a project. I’d get very deep into any project and then it would peter out. This project on Newark was on the verge of petering out many times — it was such an endless pit of imagery and I just couldn’t let go. Until this day, I could still be shooting. Joshua Lutz told me to stop shooting, to edit my images and that I had a book.
So, I did not know it was to be a book. I just started this project. It was cathartic. My projects tackle my fears, or dive into my loves.
PP: Newark is known for it’s toughness and it’s poverty. How did you come to be working so intimately with the police force?
MG: I was taking an ex-girlfriend to Newark airport and we got lost. I’m a native New Yorker, and instantly fell in love with this city so close to my hometown.
I would take my 35mm camera and spend days walking through Newark and still it took me probably about six months to figure out. It’s a pretty tough city. New York is not that tough anymore. Newark feels like New York may have done in the eighties, perhaps. I wanted to do something that is constant in this metropolitan area: cops and liquor stores.
Each project that I’ve done before or since Newark was always to tackle my fears. I grew up in New York as sort of an art-jock with other jocks and street kids, skateboarders and graffiti artists. I had the artistic gift but I didn’t have the strength to show my artistic skills against these tough kids and I guess as soon as I became an adult I was always trying to go back to that place.
Access? I almost hate to say it. My mother was the Head of the Democratic Club of the West Side of New York and I called her up and asked how I’d get into access to the cops. She gave me the number of a retired police captain in Florida. My mom is a waddling, older Jewish woman who knows everyone on the street. My father as well. Born and raised here. The captain in Florida gave me the name of the captain over at the Newark Police Department. It was 8 months of getting denied and constantly sending repeated proposals.
Then, one day out of the blue, I got a phone call, “Matt, you are accepted. What do you want to do?”
PP: It seems like you almost become an artist in residence? The door had been open by this higher official.
MG: You could say that. In the beginning, I had to tell the NPD that I wasn’t going to sell pictures to a magazine. It was strictly an art project and if it became something else I had to tell them. I was happy to promise that as I had no idea where the project might go.
I just wanted to shoot. I didn’t go looking for funding money. I’m dyslexic and so it’s hard for me to write proposals. Even to write a simple proposal takes me a while, but put a camera in my hand and I’m okay. But I wrote a proposal for the project. They didn’t really care if it was an art or not. They just didn’t want me to sue them if I got killed. I was happy to sign away.
MG: Newark is a special place. It was truly like the wild west. Back then, it didn’t look like 2003; it looks like ’91 or ’89. It feels like there’s a gap of about 15 years between big brother New York and this, the biggest city [in the region] outside of New York which is only half-an-hour away. I was always a big Sidney Lumet fan. And films like Siegel’s The French Connection and Friedkin’s Dirty Harry. Newark brought back that sort of aesthetic sensibility.
By deciding to shoot with a large format 8×10 camera I decided I was okay to miss images. It was my way of slowing down and trying to control some of my reality. I constantly moved and I did shoot some images on a Fuji 6×9.
PP: What reactions did you get from the police officers?
MG: The older cops loved it. Once they knew I wasn’t a reporter and that I wasn’t out to exploit them, I became a fly on the wall. Even with the 8×10 camera! The older guys loved the big camera. They loved history and they ate it up. The younger cops couldn’t care less. They just wanted me to stay out of their way. I had freedom and rarely did I get bothered. Even the non-cops seemed not to worry.
PP: I suppose they had other things to worry about?
MG: Often. There were girls doing tricks in the back of a Portuguese restaurant. I spent time with them. Then when I came out with my camera, I turned it on a girl who was in a towncar for a good 45 minutes. Just waiting on her friend. She was scared to come out because she was scared that the cops would arrest her.
PP: When you were out on the street, were you traveling with police officers and then exiting the vehicle with your camera equipment to begin shooting? Did people on the street see you arrive with the officers?
MG: I was doing drive alongs. With my 8 x 10 I wanted to set up like old imaging and see what I could get. A lot of my enjoyment was in not taking the photograph. I’ve always enjoyed these types of projects as much as I do taking the photograph. But, I just would tell them what I want to do and if they said move along I’m moving along. Maybe with my 35mm I’d be a little more aggressive.
PP: But was there a reaction from people on the streets shaped by the fact you were with police officers?
MG: There were moments where I was definitely one of the cops … even though I didn’t look like it. I looked like a photographer.
There were times that I would take my camera into Newark gentlemen’s clubs and there were all these gang-members. The cops were vicious at some moments; it felt like Hollywood to them sometimes. And, there were moments on the street when kids wanted their pictures taken.
There were tense moments on the streets when civilians felt vulnerable but I felt I needed to get that image. I often felt really bad and grappled with those moments for many days. I was justified as an artist; I had to get these images.
MG: You know, I was a street kid and I got into many fights, but I also grew up white in Manhattan. The privileges I had. No matter how bad it was, if you come from a white educated family…
But, it’s not an even-playing field. I always had to deal with that. In Newark, cops are on one side and they took full advantage of it. Once the vice squad came out and busted these women doing tricks. Beforehand, the cops were drinking while we ate at a Portuguese restaurant right by the headquarters. We were drinking beers and doing shots and I remember saying, “Is this okay? That we’re going out there?”
“We’re doing whatever we want. I’m the captain of the vice squad,” was the attitude.
That wouldn’t have happened in the New York Police Department, there’s way too much bureaucracy there.
PP: Some of your night time group shots (below) look like Rembrandt paintings. Two or three sets of eyeballs looking at you as the photographer. The composition of the group. The lighting.
MG: When the cops do these weekend sweeps, you have this vice squad and you have a truckload of cops — about 6 cars full of cops. Every weekend. This is where the cat-and-mouse comes in between cops and perps. This caravan would come through all the neighborhoods that they knew had some issues or drugs problems; the same exact neighborhoods. This, basically, went on every Friday at 12 o’clock.
The kids at the school yard knew exactly what was coming, and you can just see they’re exhausted from it. If it happened to me as a kid, we’d have a politician at them, or someone would be getting into a fight with the cop with, ‘How dare you stop our night.’
The looks on especially the two kids sitting in their white T-shirts, that’s how I sort of felt shooting. Those are the moments when I truly grappled with what I was doing there, and where I almost had the same sense they had to the cops — that it’s just too much.
PP: Tell us mores about Joshua Lutz’s encouragement?
MG: When I first met Josh the project needed polishing. I’d have let it peter out. Even so, I would still constantly show friends and mentors the work. They all said I had something great and those comments just kept on pushing me back to work. Lutz said all I needed to do was fill in some holes.
I liked Josh’s sensibility. He was getting into publishing and we understood New Jersey. We knew the printer had to be right. Through Dutch publisher Schilt in Amsterdam, we found a printer in Germany and we let the German’s do what they do so well.
PP: When I saw the post-industrial landscapes in Probable Cause I immediately thought of Lutz’s Meadowlands.
MG: Originally, I wanted to document the sense of place in Newark. Later, I fell in love with the cops and how they looked. I started asking them to join me outside and then I developed toward shooting landscapes so it had so many different branches.
Maybe, the 4×5 and the 6×9 sort of helped me live on in this project longer. Does that make sense? How do all these wires connect? How does this urban existence work? Can you feel the hum of it all? Might it explode at any point?
PP: There’s a constant precariousness to the work. There’s homage to labor, but it’s not “pure.” The work is very deliberate but it’s also uncomfortable because of your obvious privilege to be in that space. This fact is underlined when we see a photograph of a cop with a camera taking a picture of an arrested individual.
On the inside covers, front and back, there are walls of Polaroids of suspects.
MG: Matthew Sharpe talks about them very well in his introductory essay. He asks, ‘Can you tell the difference between the cops and the suspects?’
PP: There’s a very honest presence of photography and it’s many uses — it’s both art and it’s also an apparatus of power and control and policing. I think this is one of the successes of the book.
MG: I had probably over 300 negatives of large format images. Josh and I edited to a hundred pages. It was difficult.
PP: I also wanted to ask about the cover picture. It is a very different picture to all of the photographs within.
MG: I kept coming back to the image on the front of one of the editions of Truman Capote’s book, In Cold Blood. I could not get it out of my head that I needed a sky image. I needed clouds.
MG: I needed something that had some significance about the formation of society, or this world, or the wasteland that Newark is, or New Jersey. The cover is a shot of a beautiful sky above beautiful wetlands but it is also a site where the cops found a body.
Joel Sternfeld did Haunting Grounds, a book on hate and environmental crimes.
PP: A very powerful juxtaposition of seemingly innocuous scenes and horrifying back-stories.
MG: And that’s how I felt the book should be. At one point, it was just going to be Newark but then it became something more. The landscapes made it something more.
PP: Can you talk about the attitudes in Newark and New Jersey toward crime. What were the relationships between the police force and citizens like? What’s the background — learned from your photographing for almost a decade — that we should know?
MG: Newark is predominantly African American and there is a large portion of Portuguese. Then there’s Ironbound which can be a little more blue collar but it’s predominantly poor African Americans.
The Newark PD is one of the largest police forces, and in 2001, I think, it was 50% African American police. Now I think that it is 70% African-American. It’s a huge difference to go out with an all-white force compared to an all-black force — from the way people on the streets react which is, you know, it’s hard when you’re coming there with guns, badges and uniforms but it helps to be part of the same group. Things just get calmer. When you have a mix it tends to break down racial tensions. That’s where it has changed in a good way.
PP: Your work, as foolish as it sounds, runs counter to easy conclusions. There’s cops and suspects; there’s all races; there’s Muslim cops and female cops; there’s chiefs and beat cops too. Policing is made of all stripes.
MG: I didn’t want to lose that fairness to both cop and non-cop. I truly feel romance about the images. I wanted to show a fair balance. This is how cities work and the people among them. I’m not trying to sway public opinion.
In a narcissistic way, it has been a cathartic trip.
PP: Because it was about you entering an “alien” world?
MG: Everyone’s just trying to get their job done in this capitalist system in which it’s hard to get ahead. The cop and the perp are on the same track, but there’s a moment some go one way and others the other way. I felt for both parties. They’re stuck. At 17-years-old, the options are pretty much there for cop and for criminal. It’s about fear, overtime and getting in your years. The cop has his cycle, the robber theirs. They both have their routines. It’s the balance of urban play. Social infrastructure plays its part in shaping these groups’ lives.
In Newark, as a cop, it’s 25 years in a tough environment. It’s not easy. They’re working on a word processor in 2003!?
PP: Did you get over your fear?
MG: No. But I came a long way. I’m excited to do another project like it. In some ways, I hate that it is a book, because it suggests, it feels, like it’s over.
PP: If it is, it’s a significant and successful end. Truly, it is one of my favourite photobooks of recent years. Thanks, Matthew.
MG: Thank you, Pete.
Matt Gunther, a native new Yorker, is a film-maker and photographer who has been documenting a sense of place and moments of time throughout his career. His portraits endeavor to uncover and expose the vulnerability and compassion- the core of his subjects. Matt received his Bachelor’s in Fine Arts from SUNY Purchase. Matt’s work has been featured in numerous international and national publications, Including The New York Times Magazine, Newsweek, London Sunday Times and Gentlemen’s Quarterly. His work has been awarded and written about in American Photography, PDN, and Communication Arts among others. Matt’s work is in the permanent collection of the Brooklyn Museum and The Palais De Toyko in Paris. He is currently working on his first Monograph, Probable Cause, documenting daily life in Newark New Jersey, which will be published in the fall of 2012.