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© Amy Elkins 269 self-portraits, part of Beyond This Place: 269 Intervals
Last week, I reviewed Photographs Not Taken (ed. Will Steacy, published by Daylight) for Wired.com. It is a book I have enjoyed thoroughly, which may seem a bit perverse as the majority of the tales seem to be about literal death and sullen loss. The other essays are all essentially about metaphorical death – death of an idea; the abandonment of an ideal; fractured and sudden awareness of mortality; or a shattering of photographer-bravado.
Bryan Formhals, many months ago, hollered for more writing by photographers. PNT would be the most recent, stand-out collection of essays to support that call.
PNT features two essays about prison.
Stefan Ruiz talks about his frustration with the limitations on camera during a seven-year stint teaching art at San Quentin State Prison.
“Most of the time [...] I was a photographer in a visually amazing place with all these great subjects, and I couldn’t take a picture,” writes Ruiz.
Amy Elkins recounts a visit she and her brother made to see her dad in federal prison in 2005. She ends up describing a thousand or more photographs she didn’t take.
Call it compulsion, call it therapy, her response during the final 9 months of her dad’s imprisonment was to turn the camera on herself. Amy began making self-portraits began in 2006. Her self-portrait series, Beyond This Place: 269 Intervals became a mini internet sensation in 2007, by which time her dad was out but Amy was not out of the habit. Her self-portraits continue in Half Way There and Everybody Knows This is Nowhere.
“All three projects overlap with my father’s story,” says Amy “Half Way There continues as he lived in a re-entry house for 365 days under strict supervision. Everybody Knows This is Nowhere becomes more about re-entering the world and starting over. All in all I’ve shot over 6 years of these portraits.” Amy still photographs herself daily.
AMY ELKINS’ PHOTOGRAPHS NOT TAKEN
We had been talking here and there. Once a week. Fourteen and a half minutes before hurried goodbyes were exchanged with uncertainty. It was our allotted time to share what we were experiencing. My new chapter in New York. His, in a federal prison, three thousand miles away. My father’s stories were endless. His seventy bunk-mates. Spanish ricocheting off of the concrete walls until it became static, white noise, a flock of birds. The mess hall. The books that had their covers torn off. The Hawaiian friend he made who sang like an angel. The night he woke to flashlights banging along the metal bunks, looking for inmates with blood on their clothes.
The teams that were formed. The chess matches and basketball games. Prison Break on the television in the rec room. The pauses in his voice. We had shared just under fifteen minutes a week for months from across the country. I mostly listened, the imagery leaping to mind, as his words came through the line. These were the things I wanted to make photographs of. By the time I actually had my one and only visit with him while he was in prison, my imagination had grown wild and I was so emotionally charged that I had to place my hands together in order to keep them from shaking, and to hide the amount of cold sweat pooling in them. There were metal detectors, x-ray machines, electronic drug tests, and questionnaires before my brother and I were led into locked waiting rooms, before we were led into a barbed wire walkway, before we were led to the visitors’ area. No cameras, cell phones, keys, wallets, jewelry, hats, purses, food, or gifts were allowed. Just myself, my brother, my father, and a small square yard of short brown grass containing picnic tables, a walkway, and vending machines, wrapped in barbed wire fences, two rows deep. My father, looking aged by stress, wore a tan uniform that seemed to fall all around him like robes. His hair had grown somewhat wild and was whiter than I remembered it. His eyes were youthful and tired.
The photograph was in my head. The moment of panic, of not knowing what to talk about or how to catch up in reality, while families reeled all around us with children and their mothers or grandparents. The vending machine coffees and board games. I longed for this moment to stay preserved, as if it would become more real if I could hold it captive on film.
Or that my story would be more intriguing if I could prove what it looked like. The photograph not taken, a portrait of what we had become, the fear that my family had failed me, the confrontation of unconditional love, a portrait of uncertainty. Instead, I sat with my hands tucked against the worn-out wood of the picnic tables, watching and listening to the sounds of what we were able to be for a moment.
The story runs deep. But how about the images? There’s a touch of naivety in Amy’s self portraits, but no more than any other young artists sussing his or her emotions. The portraits are paired with quotes by her father delivered in those weekly 15 minute calls, a text/image play that adds some depth.
Whatever life these photos have had or will have, I’d like to think they’re ultimately for future generations of her family; mementos of the quirky granny who grew up in the first quarter of the 21st century; the favourite aunt with certainty of narrative but evidence of younger faltering.
After all, we might be miffed if we missed that shot of those things over there, time and time again, but we have no excuse for not recording ourselves. We might hit old age and regret not having the photos to match our memories.
Short-sighted folk may criticise 269 Intervals for its seeming indulgence or vague manipulation; it is strange that images to represent a family temporarily smashed apart by the efficiency of the law are of a pretty las (occasionally in a state of undress) but take a long sighted view and admit you are intrigued by photo-a-day projects. Who hasn’t thought about doing one themselves? … If only
you I had the discipline. Between Kessels, Karl Baden, Hugh Crawford, Noah Kalina and Homer Simpson, Amy is in good company.
Amy Elkins was born in Venice Beach, CA, and received her BFA in Photography from the School of Visual Arts in New York City. Her work has been exhibited nationally and internationally, including Kunsthalle Wien in Vienna, Austria; the Carnegie Art Museum in California; and the Minneapolis Institute of Arts in Minnesota. Elkins is represented by Yancey Richardson Gallery in New York, where she recently had her second solo exhibition.