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Arnhem Prison, Netherlands, 2011 © David Leventi
When photographer David Leventi saw Andreas Gursky’s famous shot of Stateville Prison, Illinois, he was captivated by the architectural form and wondered if there were more roundhouse prisons.
I spoke with David via Skype. He provided me with some prepared answers to questions asked by photographer Sarina Finkelstein. I have interwoven answers to my questions. The quotes are verbatim, but the order is not. The flow works.
Sarina Finkelstein (SF): What was the first round prison you photographed?
David Leventi (DL): The F-House at Stateville Correctional Center in Illinois is one of the most architecturally striking prisons — it is the last remaining cell block in the U.S. that follows Bentham’s Panopticon model. It was close to home with no language barrier to contend with, and therefore it became my first.
SF: How many round prisons exist in the world? Have you photographed all of them?
DL: Four working prisons and one ruin. I have photographed all the working ones: Stateville Correctional Center in Illinois, Breda Prison in The Netherlands, Arnhem Prison in The Netherlands and Haarlem Prison in The Netherlands. The ruin is the Presidio Modelo on the Isla de la Junvetud in Cuba. Fidel Castro was imprisoned there, and I hope to photograph it one day.
Prison Photography (PP): Now you’ve been to other roundhouse prisons, what do you make of Gursky’s photograph?
DL: All of Gursky’s photos make spaces look bigger. I think Gursky did a lot of post production, I think he extended the space, drawing the image out to the left and right making it look enormous, but its not.
In my photos, Stateville looks big because I’m shooting large format with a wide angled lens, but it’s not THAT big. It’s an illusion.
F-House #2, Stateville Correctional Center, Crest Hill, Illinois, 2010 © David Leventi
SF: This project photographing round prisons seems to be a drastic content shift from your previous work photographing world-famous opera houses?
DL: The prison project developed out of my previous project shooting opera houses. Each was photographed from center-stage and lit solely by the existing chandeliers and lamps.
The opera houses were spaces in which my Romanian grandfather, Anton Gutman, never got the chance to perform. He was a cantor who was interned in a Soviet prisoner-of-war camp called Krasnogorsk from 1942-1948. Another prisoner, Danish operatic tenor Helge Rosvaenge, heard my grandfather sing an aria from Tosca and gave him lessons. I grew up listening to him sing in our living room.
SF: So, in your previous project, you photographed cultural institutions that are social gathering spaces of entertainment. But, in this work, you’re photographing prisons — places where people are incarcerated and deprived of personal freedoms for commission of a crime. And, you’re specifically photographing domed prisons. How did you come to choose these particular buildings?
DL: Domed prisons are the closest examples of Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon model of mass surveillance prison design – a central guard tower with a complete view of surrounding prison cells. This concept was designed so a central observer could monitor all of the prisoners at once, without any particular prisoner being able to feel under inspection.
The domed prisons have the same architectural structure as an opera house (without the opulence), but the difference is in who is observing whom. In an opera house, the audience of many is observing a few. In these domed prisons, it’s the reverse.
The domed prisons are stark buildings. On first inspection, I don’t believe that the viewer identifies the interior as a prison. The ceiling of Arnhem in The Netherlands reminds me of the tartan pattern now made famous by Burberry. The photograph is very graphic, quite unlike the opera houses.
Opera houses and prison houses become a study in contrasts between beauty and squalor, opulence and poverty, serenity and cacophony.
Haarlem Prison, Netherlands, 2011 © David Leventi
PP: How did you get access to the Dutch prisons?
DL: I tried to reach out to the prisons and I tried to reach out to the Minister of Justice but no one would return my emails or telephone calls. There was the language barrier too. Nothing was happening.
Then a man who ran a music company in Utrecht wanted to use one of my opera house images as wallpaper in his office. I gave him a quote and he wrote back saying he couldn’t afford it. I asked, “Would you like to barter?” I asked if he knew anyone who could get me into the prisons. He had a client who was a communications director for the Ministry of Justice. That’s how I got permission!
All three of the prisons are no more than an hour from Amsterdam. No crazy travel involved and all under the same authority. Get into one, get into all three, right?
PP: Are you able to compare Stateville with the Dutch prisons?
DL: Prisoners in Stateville prison are treated like animals. The U.S. government is going to say they committed crimes, well people in the Netherlands committed crimes too. Who knows if they are the same level of crimes but in the Netherlands they have privacy. They have microwaves, TVs; they’re like tiny little apartments. I’m not saying they are the best place to be but it seemed a lot more civilized.
Dutch roundhouse prisons had badminton courts, soccer courts, basketball courts. The Breda prison has trees and benches. Half of it is a covered with a glass floor and downstairs there’s a dining hall and ping-pong tables.
When I was there [in one of the Dutch prisons] some smoke was coming out one of the cells, and the guard there knocked on the door and asked, ‘Are you okay? What’s going on?’ They didn’t know, but the prisoner said, ‘Something caught on fire in the microwave, there’s no problem.’ The guard went away.
Once the [Dutch] cell doors close, the prisoners have privacy. At Stateville, with the standard open bars there is no privacy.
PP: You never intended to photograph prisoners, though?
DL: No, only the architecture. It was stipulated that I could not photograph faces anyway. After 6pm in the dutch prisons, men had to be in their cells. Then I was free to walk around and photograph. It’s seems funny for me to say they are beautiful spaces; they are prisons.
PP: Is Stateville beautiful?
DL: It is loud. The warden at Stateville gave me assurances. But he also told me not to show any fear. One prisoners was running against the bars the entire time I was there. Bang. Bang. Bang. Endlessly. It was shocking. Everything at Stateville was the complete opposite to what I experienced in the Netherlands.
SF: What was the process like? How was it different to be in that space, with all eyes on you, vs. being alone in an empty opera house?
DL: I have always had stage fright. Photographing from the center of a round prison causes anxiety. The inmates are all yelling, jeering, talking, in cacophony. You become the center of attention, and taking the photograph becomes a performance in itself. At first I was intimidated, but then I blanked everything out and focused on photographing. It must be the same for the performer.
SF: What equipment are you using and what conscious choices are you making visually?
DL: I work with a large-format camera so that I have the utmost control in making sure the composition of the image is architecturally symmetrical. I pay close attention to ensuring the lines are straight for perfect repetition, curves of the convolutions of ceiling and higher and lower catwalks are parallel and empasize Euclidean geometry.
With this camera, I am also able to flatten out the space to make it look more like a painting. For instance, the industrial chandelier hangs down, but it looks askew, as if it is tilted toward you.
SF: What is the importance of having 40×50, 50×60 and 72×90 inch prints?
DL: Prints have to be large in order for all of the details to separate and be seen. When they are small, details meld together and you lose the ability to feel the texture/coldness of the prison bricks, to see the blur of prisoners behind cell doors.
I want the viewer to experience what it feels like to be surrounded by the space.
Breda Prison, Netherlands, 2011 © David Leventi
Nico Bick‘s work had been on my radar since Fotodok’s 2010 exhibition State of Prison. Between 2006 and 2009, Bick photographed the Bijlmerbajes prison in Amsterdam. In the past, Bick and I had played email tag, so it was nice to finally meet him last month in his native Netherlands and talk shop.
Where were the inmates when you were taking your photographs?
Right behind me. It all looks very serene and quiet but there’s lots of noise behind me. I had to ask permission of each prisoner before photographing their cell.
Did the prisoners care about your artistic vision?
Not really. Obviously, those that refused permission to photograph their cell really weren’t interested. Some thought it was worthwhile. Most wondered, “Why take a picture of a prison?”
Yes, why? Are you an architectural photographer?
No. I do take pictures of space, but not architecture. I hardly ever do commissions for architects. I’m interested in the tension between public space and spaces more secluded. The prison embodies this tension.
In the Netherlands, prison is a public space. It’s not like in the U.S. where there exist private facilities. The government runs all prisons here, so in that regard they are a public space. The inside is not visible but it is owned by the state, funded by the public.
How did you get access?
Initially, I sent a letter to the director. But I never got a reply. I had a friend who said she might know someone who worked at Bijlmerbajes. It was a different path to try. I sent a letter to her, she dropped it on the right desk and someone called me (laughs).
This was only the first hurdle. During my work on P.I. I liaised with four different communication officers. All had a different approach in their willingness to cooperate in the project.
I won’t try to pronounce the prison’s name. Is the complex iconic?
The Bijlmerbajes? Yes, it is. Designed in the late 60’s and put into use in 1978, this prison is an architectural embodiment of the prevailing social-reformist ideas of that time. The architects tried to escaped the traditional ‘prison architectural design’.
Six towers, divided in units and connected by corridors, are constructed with respect to individual needs of ‘social’ comfort. The windows for instance featured no metal bars initially. However, the thick ‘unbreakable’ glass was found not resistant enough and had to be reinforced with metal bars.
Bijlmerbajes is not its official name. The name comes from the ‘Bijlmer’ part of Bijlmermeer which is a nearby neighbourhood (built at the same time as the prison) plus the word ‘bajes’ which is Dutch slang for ‘prison’. Bijlmermeer is well known for its high rises.
The official name of the prison is Penitentiaire Inrichting Over-Amstel – which is really difficult to pronounce!
Does its looming architecture represent “A prison” for the majority of Dutch people?
No, it does not. Situated near a rail road station it is often first looked upon as a social housing project. As usual, people do not look properly because with such a large perimeter wall and fence it is unquestionably a prison.
For years, there have been plans to move the prison to another location. Emphasis on plans. Nothing definitive has been decided. Possibly a move to the north but the ‘Not In My Back Yard’ crowd don’t want it. I was discussing this recently with a friend and he told me that in the U.S. town and cities welcome prisons because they provide jobs. This is not the case in the Netherlands; it’s not a deciding factor [on a prison's location]. Dutch prisons are not considered as big jobs machines.
Bijlmerbajes was built as a “humane” prison. It is architecture along philosophical lines. Given the plans to replace it, do you think the next architectural solution for a prison will be driven by social ideals?
My feeling is that it will not. The replacement may not be as humane. Ideas today are not like the 60s and 70s. New prisons will have economic considerations within them. I won’t rule out that Dutch prisons may be privatized in the future. That’s the political climate we’re in.
How are prisons discussed in the Netherlands?
Generally, people talk about the legal system and not the prison system and they think that the legal system is okay; that the punishments handed out are correct and proportionate.
Unfortunately, there is – especially with that horrendous right wing cabinet we now have in the Netherlands – a discourse on how luxurious our prisons are. Of course, this is all perception.
Why have Dutch politics swung to the right?
In the Dutch parliament, 24 of the 150 seats are in the hands of the far right. So that’s about 15%. We feel the effects of the embrace of neo-liberalism in the 90’s by almost all political parties. As a result, votes shifted to the far right and left. The center is a wasteland. But bear in mind that the right-wing government in the Netherlands only has a majority of one seat in parliament.
Some people in the Netherlands think multiculturalism has failed?
Personally, I don’t think multiculturalism has failed. It is something that is here and it works. I see different types of people from all over the world around me everyday. I am aware of issues that immigration brings but [the far right leader] Wilders plays with feelings of fear and insecurity. People just need to give it time. Within a society that demands immediate solutions this is very difficult.
What does you book title P.I. refer to?
P.I. stands for Penitentiary Institution. I choose this title because the book is a metaphor for the universal notion of ‘prison’ and prison architecture in general.
How do you hope P.I. will influence discussion?
Besides the notion of a ‘hotel-like’ prison, another widespread stereotyped image of the prison is a dark, over-populated construction. With my book I try to nuance this opinion.
What is your audience for the book?
An audience with an interest in art and photography. Additionally, an audience interested in the social aspects of architecture, philosophy, ethics and cultural heritage. Obviously, with an edition limited to 400 copies my audience shall not be very large.
P.I. is not a bound book but a collection of sequenced offset prints. Why did you choose this book-portfolio design?
P.I. as a project contains more images then the ones printed as colour plates in the book. The photo index on the inside of the cover shows the series as a whole. It also shows what is available; images with no hierarchical ordering, just locations. Because the series consist of identically photographed interiors. Each series, each interior, is processed in the book as a separate set of pages. By taking this set of pages apart, you have an excellent way to compare the interiors with each other.
The publication concept of P.I. is that it is to be associated with a dossier. But at the same time – in terms of book typologies – it is to be associated with what I must define as the deconstructed book.
Deconstructed books are unbound, half bound, perforated or unfinished and, as such, emphasize the physical aspect of the book. It is this type of book that suits best my methodology and my description of a specific type of public space.
The graphic design of the book does not impose a narrative structure on the reader; by comparing the images, the story unravels. This kind of unfinished book, which even lacks ordering demands active readership.
It seems like P.I. is both fine art project and historical document?
Yes. Fine art project first but an historical document too. In terms of art strategy I am primarily interested in studying the use of public spaces.
Tell me about order, numerics and sequence in the architecture of Bijlmerbajes.
Six towers are connected by the main corridor. A tower contains five units. There are 24 single cells within every unit. Every unit has its own control room (no longer in use). A tower has a separate top floor with three isolation cells and six air cells. Each tower has two communal yards, a large one and a smaller one. Every tower has its own control room – all of which are controlled by the main control room.
Upon entering the Bijlmerbajes one is placed temporarily in one of the holding cells.
Does your book represent a single tower?
Yes, although it is pieced together from photographs of cells and spaces from all the towers. It wasn’t possible to photograph a single tower in its entirety. There are 12 photographs of cells in P.I. to represent the 24 in a single unit.
You showed the work at the Fotodok exhibition State of Prison.
Raimond Wouda, curator for State of Prison wrote about my photography during as part of his year of reviews for Fotodok. To conclude the yearlong “residency”, he mounted an exhibition. He chose the subject of photography in prisons and my project was a starting point for the exhibit.
Has photography changed the public debate on prison issues?
It’s difficult to measure. I’m interested in the Bijlmerbajes in particular but I’m not a prison expert, nor do I aspire to be the “prison photographer of the Netherlands”. I looked at one prison in isolation.
After prison, where do you go?
I’m interested in Parliaments of the European Union – 28 national parliaments plus the two European parliaments in Bruxelles & Strasbourg. Again they are public spaces and simultaneously they are not. Parliaments have notions of democracy for the people and of being seen. Prisons and parliaments; both make access difficult.
Nico Bick (Arnhem, 1964) studied photography at the Royal Academy of Art in The Hague (1986-1991). Characteristic of his work is a preference for inconspicuous places that appear to be so familiar that nobody seems to notice them anymore. He specifically direct his view at spaces with a tangible tension between the public and the private domain. With patience and careful observation he creates highly detailed images, in the absence of its users, to focus the attention to both the space itself and the meaning of these places. Nico Bick lives and works in Amsterdam.
Photographs Nico Bick
Text Frits Gierstberg
Design Joost Grootens
Published by Nico Bick, Amsterdam 2011.
Edition: 400 copies with an English text on a supplementary sheet. Offset, folded, 64 pages, 32 colour photos, 24x30cm. 35 euro.
Special edition. 25 copies. Signed and numbered with an additional original photograph (C-print, 24x30cm). 160 euro
Available through Bick’s website.
P.I. on Facebook