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Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers has got America in a tizzy. It’s entertaining but it’s no classic. Korine is the master of non-linear narrative, or to put it another way at bunching weird stuff together that could go in any order and ends up making a movie. Spring Breakers, his first – and hopefully only – “mainstream” offering follows a straight forward and straight plot; the spiraling of four young girls’ lives into a world of hyper-violence and sexuality.
As many have commented, Spring Breakers isn’t about spring break, but more about capitalism, survival, hedonism and a crime-chic version of the American Dream. A tried and tested cinema recipe if there ever was one. It’s just that in Spring Breakers the gunmen are gunwomen and they’re wearing glow in the dark bikinis.
The perfect reality check is the story of Sheriff Frank McKeithen’s beachfront jail in the city of Panama Beach, Florida (the spring break capital of the world.) Bay County Sheriff McKeithen has been doing the press rounds, this week explaining his temporary and mobile jail. He calls it his “welcome center.”
It’s a practical solution. The county jail is an hours round-trip from downtown Panama Beach. When you have college kids exploding with excitement, booze and idiocy, it’s good not to have your officers’ in a squad car stuck in traffic.
The mobile unit and holding-pens serve the same functions as the regular jail – booking, fingerprinting and photographing.
McKeithen says spring break in his county can be “chaos.” It cannot be as lawless as Korine’s shoot-em-up version, but if you’re in any doubt as to the bacchanalia, perhaps (in photography at least) Emiliano Granado’s Beach Party shows this youngsters’ holiday tradition in the harshest and most honest light.
I prefer McKeithen’s version to Korine’s. The sheriff knows trouble is coming and makes preparations. Korine’s presentation – requiring unbelievably large and frequent suspensions of disbelief – is impractical.
What McKeithen, Korine, Granado and anyone else who takes a look at spring break, have in common is that the Florida resorts are bubbles in which people shed normative behaviours as quickly as they shed clothes.
It’s a bubble in which bad behaviour might be met with one of McKeithen’s open air cells, or just as easily it might be something one gets away with. Spoiler alert: all four of Korine’s femme fatales walk away scott-free from the bubble.
With repeated reference to escape; some place different; “creating ones own worlds” (James Franco’s character says he comes from out of space); paradise, Spring Breakers almost ad nauseum drives home the point that the bubble remains apart from the real world. Duh! Richard Brody for The New Yorker notes:
“The four young women are closed units whose sole connection to the wider world is in their deceptive phone calls to family members, a sweetened vision of kids socializing in a constructive way that’s as fake as the values of the parents or grandparents who fall for it.”
So, we’re fooling ourselves if we don’t profess to know what’s going on in the pools and hotels rooms. Sure, and with his anti-heroines walking away unscathed, Korine lets us play along with the fantastic unreality he has so cleverly exaggerated.
Okay, we can walk away now? Despite the sex (there’s lots of boobs) and the self-consciously ludicrous gun fetishism (Franco gives two pistols a blow-job), Spring Breakers is a walk into a harmless silver-screen fantasy-land, right? No. There’s one crucial element of the film that Korine fudges. Big time. Race.
“The director’s ultimate spring-break fantasy is a vision of murder camp—and of “black camp”—and he doesn’t make any effort to distinguish the two. The very mainspring of the movie is his stereotypical and reductive view of black life as one of drug dealing and gang violence.”
Once again, depictions of race are skewed. Clumsy at best, irresponsible at worst.
Brody’s observation that the UV light darkens the bikini-clad skin in the crucial climatic scenes of murder and mayhem might be over thinking it, but doesn’t detract from his overall point that while directing is a game, it’s a game poorly played when stuck on “old stories, old images, old stereotypes.”
The film was quite deifferent to that I had expected from the trailer. A success. Not enough thumping Skrillex dubstep, but some surprisingly good inclusion of Britney Spears (during the most celebratory of the violence montages).
All images: WMBB
We went to Christopher Anderson’s book launch for Capitolio. It was great to see it after recent reviews, heated debates (check out comments) questions and wot not. I don’t think the selection of the images was the best.
At the Metropolitan, Surface Tension: Photographs from the Permanent Collection was a pleasant whimsy into some mesmerizing works, notably Adam Fuss’ UNTITLED (1997) made by the metronome shimmers of snakes upon black dust upon white dust. Image Source: Cheim & Read
The Met’s photography department was putting together the final touches on Robert Frank’s The Americans which opened this week. It was all hands to the pump as evidenced by besuited Malcolm Daniel – who I spied carrying large, heavy object (post?) behind a partition and into the exhibition space.
Egg and Cheese Bagel.
Over at the Museum of Modern Art, I was pleased to see Russell Lee‘s work Bulletin Board in Post Office Showing a Large Collection of “Wanted Men” Signs, Ames, Iowa (1936). Who doesn’t love a mug shot?
Bringing the practice of mapping of transgressions into the 21st century, the Spatial Design Lab from the Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation at Columbia University exhibited its Million Dollar Blocks Project (2006).
On Monday night I sat with Andrew Lichtenstein. We talked. Andrew recommended Brennan Linsley‘s work and was quite emphatic about the book ‘Concrete Mama‘. He also spoke highly of Max Kenner and the work at the Bard Prison Initiative
Tuesday, I met Emiliano Granado. We were first in contact over his San Quentin Giants pictures. We talked about many things including Trevor Paglen, Argentina, the Burke Gilman, and the Horticultural Society of New York, which recently lost Barbara Margolis who was an inspiring leader. Emiliano recommended Alessandra Sanguinetti‘s work.
On Sunday, I’d been at the WTC construction site. There was some portraiture on display in a window. The space behind the window was closed but would usually be open. The photographs were easy on the eye.
On my last night I checked out Steven Hirsch’s Courthouse Confessions.
That’s Matt Kelley looking at Steven’s work. He’s coordinator for Change.org Criminal Justice, online communications for the Innocence Project and all together nice bloke. Matt’s double identity is twittered and can be followed here and here.
Hirsch takes street portraits of folk going to court, secures (in some ironic twist) a non-binding statement and then transcribes it verbatim to go with the portrait. Constantly moving the camera, Hirsch uses hard flash and distorted angles/zoom to depict these individuals as shape shifters; as anomalies. The fact Hirsch’s subjects (in most cases) seem alien to the logic of the courts – that any lessons arising from their cases are unlikely to effect sentencing laws in the future – should but be a source of disquiet for us as an audience.
One last thing. On Saturday, I saw John Baldessari sat outside a Grennwich Village coffeehouse, but I bottled saying anything. I’ve learnt that famous people abound in Manhattan and you see ‘em everywhere.
Thanks to everyone who altered their orbits a little to coincide with mine.
Last week, I threw up a quick post featuring Emiliano Granado’s website images of his photographs of the San Quentin Giants. Here, Granado shares previously unpublished contact sheet images, his experiences and lasting thoughts from working within one of America’s most notorious prisons.
What compelled you to travel across the US to photograph the story at San Quentin?
This was actually a magazine assignment for Mass Appeal Magazine. However, the TOTAL budget was $300, so it really turns out to be a personal project after the film, travel expenses, etc. So, the simple answer to the question is that I’m a photographer. I’m curious by nature. Part of the reason I’m a photographer is to study the world around me. I like to think of myself as a social scientist, except I don’t have any scientific method of measuring things, just a photograph as a document.
With that in mind, it would be crazy of me to NOT go to San Quentin! I’d never been in a correctional institution but I’ve always been fascinated by them. If you look through my Tivo, you’ll see shows like COPS, Locked Up, Gangland, etc. I was also a Psychology major in college and remember being blown away by Zimbardo’s prison experiment and other studies. Basically, it was an opportunity to see in real life a lot of what I’d seen on TV or read in books. And as a bonus, I was allowed to photograph.
What procedures did you need to go through in order to gain access?
I was amazed at the lack of procedure. The writer for the story had been in touch with the San Quentin public relations people, but that was it. There was plenty of other media there that day. It was opening day of the season, so I guess it made for a minor local news story.
I’m pretty sure SQ prides itself in being so open and showcasing what a different approach to “reform” looks like.
It is my opinion that San Quentin is one of the best-equipped prisons in California to deal with a variety of visitors. Did you find this the case?
Definitely. Access was very easy. They barely searched my equipment! Parking was easy. I was really surprised at how easy and smooth the process was. Not to mention there were many other visitors that day (an entire baseball team, more media, local residents playing tennis with inmates, etc).
Did your preparation or process differ due to the unique location?
Definitely. I usually work with a photo assistant and that couldn’t be coordinated, so I was by myself. I packed as lightly as I could and prepared myself for a fast, chaotic shoot. Some shoots are slow and methodical, and others are pure chaos. I knew this would be the latter.
One thing I didn’t think about was my outfit. SQ inmates dress in denim, so visitors aren’t allowed to wear denim. Of course, I was wearing jeans. The officers gave me a pair of green pajama pants. I’m glad they are ready for that kind of situation.
You are not a sports shooter per se. You took portraits of the players and spectators of inmate-spectators. How did you choose when to frame a shot and release the shutter?
Correct. I’m definitely not what most people would consider a sports photographer. I don’t own any of those huge, long lenses. However, I photograph lots of sporting events. I think of them as a microcosm of our society. There are lots of very interesting things happening at events like this. Fanaticism, idolatry, community, etc. Not to mention lots of alcohol and partying – see my Nascar images!
Hitting the shutter isn’t entirely a conscious decision. That decision is informed by years of looking at successful and unsuccessful images. It’s basically a gut instinct. There are times that I search for a particular image in my head, but mostly, it’s about having the camera ready and pointed in the right direction. When something interesting happens you snap.
There are photographers that come to a shoot with the shots in their head already. They produce the images – set people up, set up lighting, etc. Then there are photographers that are working with certain themes or ideas and they come to the location ready to find something that informs those ideas. I’m definitely the latter. There is a looseness and discovery process that I really enjoy when photographing like this. It’s like the scientist crunching numbers and coming to some new discovery.
A lot of photo editors say the story makes the story, not the images. Finding the story is key. Do you think there are many more stories within sites of incarceration waiting to be told?
I’m not sure I agree with that. I always say that a photograph can be made anywhere. Even if there is no story, per se. I definitely agree that a powerful image along with a powerful story is better, but a photograph can be devoid of a story, but be powerful anyway.
Every person, every place, everything has a story. So yes, there are millions of untold stories within sites of incarceration. Hopefully, I’ll be able to tell some of them.
Having had your experience at San Quentin, what other photo essays would you like to see produced that would confirm or extend your impressions of America’s prisons?
Man, there are millions of photos waiting to be made! I’m currently trying to gain access to a local NYC prison to continue my work and discover a bit more about what “Prison” means. Personally, I’d love to see long-term projects about inmates. Something like portraits as new inmates are processed, images while incarcerated, and then see what their life is like after prison. Their families, their victims, etc. And of course, if any photo editor wants to assign something like that, I’d love to shoot it!
Anything you’d like to add to help the reader as they view your San Quentin Baseball photographs?
Yes. When I walked in to the yard, I didn’t know what reaction I would get from the inmates. Everyone was super friendly and willing to be photographed. Everyone wanted to tell me their story. I’m not sure how different their reaction would have been to me if I didn’t have a camera, but I was pleasantly surprised. At first, I felt like an outsider and fearful, but after an hour or so, I felt comfortable and welcome. It was a weird experience to think the guy next to me could be a murderer (and there were, in fact, murderers on the baseball team), and not be afraid. There was this moral relativism thing going on in my head. These people were “bad,” yet they were just normal guys that had made very big mistakes. I left SQ thinking that pretty much any one of us could have ended up like them. Given a different set of circumstances or lack of access to social resources (e.g. education, money, parenting, etc) I could very easily see how my own life could have mirrored their life.
And finally, can you remember the opposition?
I don’t remember who they were playing, but I do remember that their pitcher had played in the Majors and even pitched in a World Series. I believe the article that finally ran in Death + Taxes magazine mentions the opposition.
ALL IMAGES © 2009 EMILIANO GRANADO
Authors note: Huge thanks to Emiliano Granado for his thoughtful responses and honest reflections. It was a pleasure working with you E!
Housekeeping. At the end of my previous post on Emiliano’s work, I postured when San Quentin would get more sports teams for the integration of prisoners and civilians. Emiliano has answered that for me in this interview. He observed locals playing tennis and also states San Quentin also has a basketball team.
With Emiliano‘s permission I have lifted these images straight from his website. We are working together on an interview for a second post on his work (scheduled for next week). It will include previously unpublished and untouched images from his contact sheets. Please stay tuned for that. Meanwhile enjoy my personal selection of six preferred prints.
ALL IMAGES © 2009 EMILIANO GRANADO
The San Quentin Giants are well known in the San Francisco Bay Area. I have met a couple of guys in the past who’ve played inside the walls during regular season – it is not unusual.
In an ideal world, the to and fro of public in and out of prison would be without restriction, threat or security protocol. This way, society could fear inmates less and inmates would not be institutionalised to the extent they are today.
I realise this is pie-in-the-sky thinking as the minority of seriously dangerous prisoners necessarily dictate the need for stringent controls. Still it doesn’t mean that increasingly trusted and regular contact between inmate and no-inmate populations cannot be our ideal to shoot for. Smaller and purposefully designed institutions would certainly be the first step in this sea change.
The scheduled games for the San Quentin Giants baseball team are the closest approximation to genuine & normalised interaction between inmate and non-inmate populations. When will San Quentin get a basketball team? Or any other teams for that matter?
Check out these sources for further information on the San Quentin Giants. Press Enterprise – Long Article and Audio, Mother Jones article – Featuring Granado’s photography, California Connected – Video, Christian Science Monitor – Long article and video, NPR Feature – Audio.
And, if you are really engrossed you can always purchase Bad Boys of Summer, a recent documentary from Loren Mendell and Tiller Russell.