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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.

As we know, and as Leventi says, “everybody has photographed at Stateville.” However, not everybody had photographed the roundhouse prisons of the Netherlands. Leventi has.

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.

Q&A

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.

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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

A 3550

© Dave Jordano

Dave Jordano responded to yesterday’s question Have you ever seen prisoners on your daily commute or holiday road-trips? with the above image.

It shows prison workers maintaining the levee along the Mississippi River in southern Illinois. It is his only photograph of prisoners.

Dave and I had been in recent contact because I’d interviewed him for Wired.com and featured HIS AMAZING PHOTOS OF DETROITERS, including the one of Glemie below.

I write:

Unbroken Down is an attempt to set the photographic record straight. Jordano believes that Detroit is more than a tale of decline and images of the associated urban decay. Yet, a lot of celebrated photography projects made in Detroit recently have focused on ruination as if the apocalypse passed through and kept going.

“Detroit is still a living city. Why hasn’t this been part of the equation?” asks Jordano of most photographic output.

Please check out Captivating Photos of Detroit Delve Deep to Reveal a Beautiful, Struggling City. Many have enjoyed it; I am sure you will too.

Glemie-Westside-Detroit-2011

© Dave Jordano Glemie, Westside, 2011.

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Prisoners cleaning the Great Mississippi River Road after the flood. Alton, Illinois, 2008. © Jo Ann Walters, from the series Dog Town.

Following on nicely from yesterday’s post about prisoners work details, is this image (right-click for a larger view) by Jo Ann Walters, from her series Dog Town.

Chance, or seemingly chance, encounters between photographers and prisoner road crews are not uncommon – portraits by Roger Kisby and Alec Soth spring to mind as similar types of images. Not to mention the dozens of photographers including Scott Houston, Jon Lowenstein and Jim Lo Scalzo who’ve photographed Sheriff Joe Arapio’s chain-gang publicity stunts.

I’ve always lived on the west coast and I haven’t happened upon prisoner work teams but I think this is because the work, for example, of the 200 fire crews and 4,000 offenders at the 42 California DOC Conservation Camps goes on in isolated areas.

How about you? Have you ever seen prisoners on your daily commute or holiday road-trips?

Request: “I would like to see the downtown Chicago or the lake of Chicago it will bring me happiness to see a real nice picture of the downtown. Please! A good place to eat! Nice cars! I been locked up for 17 long years!”

Last week, I asked Where Are All The Photographs Of Solitary Confinement? In terms of evidential imagery, the question still stands. A very different but equally interesting angle to take in the inquiry into images from within solitary is to consider the imagined and idealised images that persist within the minds of prisoners.

FROM LOCKED DOWN MINDS TO TANGIBLE PRINTS

Tamms Year Ten (TY10), a Chicago-based activist group campaigning to close down the controversial Tamms Supemax in Illinois, is not only finding out what the precious images are in the minds of men in solitary, they are going out into the world and making those images a reality – making files, prints to be mailed to each man, and prints for awareness-raising exhibitions.

TY10 asked scores of men in solitary, “If you could have one picture, what would it be?” The requests can be anything in worlds real or imagined. Once made, the images are opportunities for prisoners to see what they want to, what they used to, or perhaps what they may never see again.

Tamms prisoners never leave their cells except to shower or exercise alone in a concrete pen. Meals are pushed through a slot in the cell door. There are no jobs, communal activities or contact visits. Suicide attempts, self-mutilation, psychosis and serious mental disorders are common at Tamms, and are an expected consequence of long-term isolation.

The U.N. Committee Against Torture considers such conditions to be cruel, inhuman and degrading, and when the isolation is indefinite – as at Tamms – to be form of torture. Last year, the U.N. Special Rapporteur on torture Juan E. Méndez called for a global ban on solitary confinement in excess of 15 days.

This year, Governor Pat Quinn announced his plans to shut down the prison but closure has been halted because of lawsuits by the prison guards’ union, AFSCME.

FRAMEWORK FOR CONSIDERING THESE IMAGES

Below are a selection of the requests and resulting images. They are a hodge-podge collection of styles and approaches and clearly many of the images do not meet the standards of fine art aesthetics. But, those standards are not by which these images should be judged.

The images originate from the minds of men who exist in environments of severe sensory deprivation. Each image is conjured from the absence of imagery.

Process trumps product in the TY10 Photo Requests From Solitary project. These images connect and educate people across supermax divides – the most opaque divides of prison regulation. The Photos From Solitary Project - one of the many TY10 efforts to engage the public on the issue of cruel and unusual detention – was conceived of to capture the eyes and ears of people and draw them in to protest and resistance.

The processes in making these images buttress, and spread, committed social justice activism; that is their worth.

Active in the project are artists and photographers Greg Ruffing, Oli Rodriguez, Jeanine Oleson, Rachel Herman, Claire Pentecost, Colleen Plumb, Tracy Sefcik, Harry Bos, Chris Murphy, Billy Dee, Lindsay Blair Brown, Karen Rodriguez, Sue Coe, Danny Orendorff, Lloyd Degrane and others.

Requests remain open and you can get involved too. Contact tammsyearten@gmail.com

IMAGE GALLERY

Request: “If you please, send me photographs of laser-printed image on white paper or the 10 most-dangerous land animals in the world. If you do not find it onerous and unreasonable, send me pictures of the land animals too, with a description of each animal.”
Photo montage by Mark Cooley; research and text by Stephen F. Eisenman.

Request: “I want a photo of the whole block of 63rd and Marshfield, on the south-side in the Englewood community – the 6300 block of south Marshfield is where I’m from. I would like it taken in the day time, between two and four o’clock p.m. It’s a green and white duplex-like house – the only green and while house on the block – that my Auntie “Gibby” lives in. I want the picture taken from the sidewalk (that leads to the T-shape alley going towards Ashland and 63rd) in front of the alley, facing slightly towards 64th Marshfield. But, make sure majority of the west-side of the block gets pictured.”

Request: “I would like my own picture done with an alternate background from the IDOC picture. I have no pictures of myself to give my friends and family. This would mean a great deal to me. If this is not able to be done. Then I’ll leave the picture for you to decide. If you can place my picture on another background. Nothing too much please. Something simple like a blue sky with clouds or a sunset in the distance would be fine.”

Request: “I would like to see a picture of a beach with the clearest water, and palm trees and birds with colorful plume, and maybe with the sun setting low on the horizon. The only instruction I have would be for you to create this photo with imagination and serenity.”

Request: “It’ll be great to get a picture of the chicago skyline at night, with all the big buildings (Willis Tower, etc) and lakefront. really I would just like pictures of the city, the x-mas tree down town, mag-mile, Mill park the places people come to chicago to see. Hey, you’re the photographer, just do what you do!”

Request: “Jennifer Lopez music videos with her ex Ben Affleck on the boat with her butt showing. I will like to see her butt.”

Request: “I would love a photograph of a woman setting by a lake fishing, with an empty chair next to her, with a cooler of beer. And in the empty chair have a sign with FreeBird on it! And have a Harley Davidson motorcycle in the background! I’d prefer the photographer take the photo from a boat out in the lake! Also, I’d prefer a woman that’s over 40!”

Request: “At 66 yrs. of age I try to use a little humor. I want a picture of a trash-can with the lid half off, with two eyes peeking out of the half-open lid. The trash can is rolling down the hill toward an incinerator with the caption: ‘I seem to be picking up speed I must be headed towards a bright future.’ I was in Florence, CO. So if you could get a picture of me in the Feds and in the state Max joints you could caption both: ‘From Max to Max and no end in sight’.”

Request: “A lovesick clown, holding a old fashioned feathered pen, as if writing a letter. From the waist up, in black and white. As close up as possible with as much detail as possible, and with the face about four inches big.”

Request: “I would like this picture drawn my ID as is. Don’t add a thing. Just the face will do. Thank you for this blessing. I don’t have any pictures of myself; they all were confiscated, years back, when I was at Pontiac. So I would like to know if you could get a picture of me off the internet or the ID photo that I believe you have. Don’t worry I still don’t smile or laugh it’s been years since I smiled, but thanks to your offer I will be smiling if I get the picture your offering. I believe you could get my mug shot off the internet. The picture is to be sent to my mother in Puerto Rico.”

Request: “Cast of the Kidd Kraddick in the Morning Show: Kelly Rasberry; Big Al Mack; Jenna; Psycho Shannon; Kidd Kraddick; JS.” [This is the cast of the radio show he listens to every day. He has been in isolation for 12 years.]

Request: “A picture of the stone archway in the back of the yard’s neighborhood located at 40th and Exchange St; between Halsted and Racine Streets on the South Side. It’s the last remaining thing from the Union Stockyards. I used to climb up on this structure as a kid; a few angle’s of it taken from different directions. I am not limited to any photo amounts.”

Request: “I would like a photograph of Madison and Ashland looking West towards the United Center, and if you could, I would like a full frontal view of the Michael Jordan statue in front of the United Center. THANK YOU!”

Request: “A photo of my deceased mother standing in front of a mansion, or big castle with a bunch of money on the ground and a black Hummer parked in front of it. I truly appreciate this a lot. I have been trying to get a picture of this, for a long time now. Please send the picture back when you are finished. We can’t receive Polaroids, just regular pictures that is 15 pictures, but 10 per envelope. I’m sending you two poems I wrote. I would truly appreciate it a lot from you helping me out, especially as I don’t have nobody out there. Now I know somebody out there in the world cares about us in here.”

Request: “I would like to receive a photograph of a “8×10″ Puerto Rican Flag. Thank you in advance! This could be taken in the Humboldt Park neighborhood in Chicago.”

Request: “I would like a picture of downtown Waukegan, IL located in Lake County, IL. The best place to photograph would be Genesse St.”

Request: “Photographs of Tamms Year Ten – that is, if they are not prohibited. :< I’d just like to be able to put the faces to the names we’ve seen over the years so the humanity of each can shine forth – a name on paper at the end of the day is still just a name on paper!”

Request: “The Bald Knob Cross in the Southern area of Illinois with someone of the Christian faith going there praying for me with the Grand Cross in the picture praying that I am released from Tamms and that I make parole. I’ve been locked up 36 long years, and time in Tamms is hindering my chances of making parole. I am asking for intercession prayers for my release from Tamms by this personal Bald Knob Cross and the chain will cause my family and others to go there too. Be sure to include the Bald Knob Cross in the picture and to pray for my release from Tamms and to make parole. My family and church will also finish linking the chain of this event. Persistently offering prayers combined with solemn earnest efforts and devoted work to change things. God + Tamms Year Ten + dynamic team!”
TY10 note: We coordinated with the management at Bald Knob Cross, gathered his family members and others, drove six hours to Bald Knob Cross and held a beautiful litany with prayer, song and verse and every family member speaking. The next day we took family members to visit Tamms. Willie was transferred from Tamms the day before the prayer vigil! This summer  – after 37 years in prison – he got parole. Willie was put on a Greyhound bus and was back in Chicago the next day. We had a Welcome Home party for him and he talked about this photograph.

Request: “A photograph within a photo of me + the lake front. A photograph within a photo of me + Navy Pier. A photograph within a photo of me + wild lions. A photograph within a photo of me + wild wolves. A photograph within a photo of me + Chinese Dragon. For next Christmas mailing of cards. Please place me in the right, upper corner of the photo within a photo and make copies of them 5 each. Thank you very much and many blessings. Get my photo off the Tamms, prison profile website.”

Request: “A photo of the Christmas tree downtown.”

Request: “I don’t know if this like an artist drawing a picture if so I got into the whole superhero thing and I had this idea where two major comic Marvel/DC. It’s a mural with Thor, Captain America, Wolverine, Venom, Iron Man, Hulk teamed up with Superman, Green Arrow, Flash, and Batman against Two Face, Joker, Magneto, Dr Doom, Saber Tooth, Kingpin, and Green Goblin. A battle of good-vs-evil theme.”

Request: “I would like to receive an image laser-printed on regular white paper photograph a myself off the internet without my criminal convictions or other information attached to the photo. I would like the three photographs I am sending to you copied onto digital paper that can be used in a computer enhancement. If someone can do this for me, I will appreciate it very much and thank you. If you can not do it send my photos back, please. “
TY10 Note: We completed this one and the IDOC censored it and returned it to us.

Request: “I would like a photographer to capture the image of a little boy and girl, sitting side by side, on a piano bench, the two of them playing together, with a single bright red rose on the piano keys. If possible, make sure the kids are anywhere from 3-7 years old, dressed in sunday best. It shall be a romantic photo, which I hope to give to my wife. 8×10 copy of the completed photo.”

TAMMS YEAR TEN & PHOTO REQUESTS FROM SOLITARY

The exhibition Photo Requests From Solitary is on show until the 21st December, at the Tamms Year Ten Campaign Office, Sullivan Galleries, School of the Art Institute of Chicago, 33 S. State St., 7th Floor, Chicago IL 60603.

The Tamms Year Ten Photos Requests From Solitary is supported by an Open Society Documentary Photography Audience Engagement Grant. In partnership with the National Religious Campaign Against Torture, the project is to expand to supermaxes in California and Virginia.

Tamms Year Ten is a grassroots coalition formed in 2008 to persuade Illinois legislators and the governor to reform or close Tamms supermax prison. Follow them on Facebook.

A Corrections Officer forcibly restrains an unruly prisoner who was screaming and claiming abuse by the officer, Cook County Jail, Chicago, Illinois. April, 2011.

CONTEXT

In April 2011, Peter van Agtmael was assigned by Newsweek to photograph Tom Dart, the Sheriff of Cook County, Chicago, Illinois. The coverage involved one day’s access to Cook County Jail and day of access to the ride-alongs with the PD. With a daily average of 11,000 inmates, Cook County Jail is the largest facility of detention in the U.S.

During his time in the jail, van Agtmael witnessed an altercation and heard allegations of abuse.

“The possibility of one more day of access to the jail was floated, but then didn’t come through.”

It is uncertain as to whether van Agtmael’s photographs of the contact between prisoner and deputy affected the decision to cancel the next day’s proposed visit. Van Agtmael isn’t even sure if it was Newsweek or the Sheriff’s department’s decision to cancel.

Newsweek consequently killed the story.

“I don’t know why the story was killed,” says van Agtmael. “No reason was given. Tony Dokoupil, the reporter, briefly referenced the trip in a May 29, 2011 article, Mad As Hell.”

Van Agtmael explains the background to the story, “Dart had became notorious in 2008 for halting evictions tied to foreclosure. He became something of a populist hero, and a deal made with the courts gave homeowners and tenants more leeway to contest their evictions.”

TESTIMONY

Van Agtmael recounts, “Sheriff Dart was giving Tony Dokoupil and I a tour of the jail system, and I heard screams and dull thuds coming from down a corridor. I ran towards the sounds and began photographing a cop pushing the young man against a wall. I began photographing the scene. The young man was screaming that the officer had been beating him, and the officer was yelling at me to stop photographing as he pushed the man further down the hallway. I followed and continued to photograph.”

[Continues below ...]

A Corrections Officer forcibly restrains an unruly prisoner who was screaming and claiming abuse by the officer.

“The officer kept yelling at me to stop, and seemed to be trying to simultaneously restrain me as well as the man, but I kept out of arm’s length and explained that I was a guest of Sheriff Dart and had been promised open access to the jail. A moment later, Dart appeared and upon his arrival the situation calmed considerably. He asked the man to explain what had happened to him, wrote a few things down, and then the police officer pushed the young man into an elevator.

[Continues below ...]

“A few minutes later we came across the bald man who asked me to take his picture and whispered to me that the cops had punched him repeatedly in the face, resulting in the bruising in the portrait. I had no way of independently verifying the statement,” says van Agtmael.

[Continues below ...]

A Corrections Officer leads a prisoner – who had tried to escape – to a holding cell.  The man was cut and bruised and claimed he had been beaten by officers after he tried to escape.

“Honestly, it’s very hard for me to make an informed commentary based on a day spent in the jail system. I saw a lot of desperation, and heard stories of alleged abuse, but the context and time limitations would compromise any superficial interpretation. I’ll let the pictures represent my experiences,” van Agtmael concludes.

Inmate of Cook County Jail who is cut and bruised. He claimed he had been beaten by officers after he tried to escape.

THOUGHTS

This ambiguous series of photographs goes right to the heart of the efforts I make on Prison Photography to decipher prisons and jails, which for the most part are invisible worlds. Immediately, their meaning and interpretations are up for discussion; they are contested.

Maybe, Newsweek wanted a fuller picture of the Cook County Jail system? Maybe, the relevance of the planned story passed? For me, the fact the story was killed is a sad turn of events.

Getting involved in meta-analysis of journalism can be dangerous but in van Agtmael’s photographs are the kernels of a larger story. It’s not that the stories of these two inmates and these two correctional officers were not told, it is that no story at all was told.

But, let’s not be churlish; this blog post is not an exposé. Van Agtmael’s images are not an illumination of a definable event because the details cannot be verified. They are, however, a depressing suggestion of the fraught and intense-contact situations that play out in prisons and jails across the U.S. every day.

I am not amplifying the inmates’ allegations; to do so would be baseless. I also don’t want to appear to be generally criticising correctional officers. I will however criticise politicians and a voting public that allows mammoth-sized prisons and jails to operate. The experience of prisoners and staff would be less frantic in smaller institutions, and in institutions designed to treat (as well as categorise) and not necessarily detain as their main task.

By publishing these photos my aim is to – again – call readers to think not only about the images they see but those they don’t see. Ultimately, I take van Agtmael’s tack, which is, to let the photographs speak for themselves.

- – – -

Here’s some other selects from van Agtmael’s visit to Cook County Jail:

Anthony Smith, a prisoner in the Cook County Jail, Chicago, IL, complains to Sheriff Tom Dart about his treatment and sentence.

Sandwiches for prisoners in the Cook County jail system.

An employee of the Cook County jail system.

A deputy at the Cook County Jail.

PETER VAN AGTMAEL

Peter van Agtmael (b. 1981) graduated from Yale University in 2003 with a degree in History. Following graduation, he spent a year in China on the Charles P. Howland fellowship photographing the effects of the Three Gorges Dam. Since the beginning of 2006, he has documented the consequences of America’s Wars, at home and abroad.  A monograph of the work, ‘2nd Tour Hope I Don’t Die’ was published in 2009. In 2008, he helped organize the exhibition and book Battlespace, a retrospective of unseen work from 22 photographers covering Iraq and Afghanistan. Peter is represented by Magnum Photos.

Peter van Agtmael has been awarded the ICP Infinity Award for Young Photographer (2011); PDN Photo Annual (2011); PDN 30 (2010); PDN Photo Annual (2010); American Photography Annual (2010); FOAM Talent (2009); Santa Fe Project Competition –  Honorable Mention; Pulitzer Center Grant (2008); World Press Photo Joop Masterclass (2008).

- – – -

All images: Peter van Agtmael/Magnum Photos.

This afternoon, I’ll be speaking to photography students at Evergreen State College, Olympia, WA. Instructor, Steve Davis has asked me to discuss PPOTR, regale some stories, recount my interviews.

Without doubt, Lloyd Degrane‘s story was one of the most remarkable. I have yet to edit the audio of Lloyd’s interview, but I did transcribe part of our conversation so it could be included in the Cruel & Unusual/PPOTR Newspaper. I’d like to share the text (below).

When Lloyd and I met in Chicago, he was preparing for Prison, the first ever exhibition of his prison photographs. It was at Gage Gallery (which coincidentally just showed Lori Waselchuk – another PPOTR interviewee). Gage put together an audio slideshow, which I also wanted to share (bottom).

THE BACKSTORY

Lloyd is a gentle, unassuming, older gent. He worked diligently for an entire decade (1990-2000) within three Illinois prisons – the Joliet Receiving Center, the Stateville Maximum Security Prison and Cook County Jail (the largest walled facility in the world with approximately 11,000 inmates). Degrane did this without any fuss or anything approximating self-promotion.

Before the authorities allowed him in with his camera, the Department of Corrections sent Degrane on a 600-mile round-trip to Menard Prison, a maximum-security prison in Southern Illinois. At Menard, Degrane was to just have a tour of the facilities. The warden instructed him not to take in his camera, and said that they he discuss with Degrane the proposed photography project after Degrane has taken the tour.

Due to an extraordinary experience during his prison visit, Degrane never met the warden. The extraordinary experience did, however, give Degrane a bargaining chip with which to win access to the Illinois prison system.

LLOYD’S FIRST DAY IN PRISON

I was led around Menard Prison by a guard that was just about to retire. You don’t get comfortable for some time. On the yard, you’re walking around brushing shoulders with murderers and rapists. I’d never been around people who had committed heinous crimes.

We walked into a big cell house holding several hundred inmates. As we got to the centre of the cell house a race riot broke out around us. I later found out is was African American inmates who wanted to retaliate against a white biker gang for killing one of their own several weeks before, and we were right in the middle of that retaliation. I remember yelling and threats being directed at the guard I was with. I was wearing a white shirt at the time and prisoners stopped and looked at me as if to ask, “What is this guy doing here?” I ran with the guard through a gauntlet of muscular black inmates. We made it to a cell and inside the cell was one of the oldest inmates I’d ever seen – over seventy years of age. And the guard just pushed me inside the cell. And the race riot went into high gear then. The first thing I saw was a white biker gang member being beaten by four or five black prisoners and the beating got closer and closer to the cell I was in. One of the black prisoners picked up the white biker and threw him against the bars. His head split open and he fell right at my feet. That was my initiation into maximum-security prison. I thought he was dead.

I heard over the loudspeaker system “CIVILIAN INSIDE” and I looked at the guard who was in the cell with me and he pointed at me and he said, “That’s you”. About five minutes later I heard the state police come into the cellblock with kind of this chant from the wizard of Oz. It was a chant to get everyone psyched up and strike fear into the heart of the rioting prisoners. They marched in with clubs and they were there to rescue me. They made a pathway through this insanity and extracted me from the cellblock along with the officer. They got me out of the cellblock back to the warden’s office where I picked up my camera and they just kind of pushed me out the back door.

I went to the nearest tavern and had a couple of shots of whisky. The adrenaline was just incredible, to the point where I couldn’t sit down. I’d nearly lost my life and I’d never had an experience like that before.

Later that day, I contacted the communications officer for the Illinois Department of Corrections. He knew what had happened. He said, “If you don’t talk to the media about what happened today then we’ll send you into Stateville Prison,” And so I didn’t say anything. Two weeks later I got notice from the warden at Stateville that it was okay to come in and start the project.

Leventi, David - Stateville, Joliet, IL

Following my recent post of David Leventi‘s work, a reader contacted me to alert me of the potential (and presumably happenstance) development of Stateville Correctional Center, Joliet, Illinois as an art object.

Consistently through the representations of Stateville is the description of the roundhouse as one of the last remaining prisons in America adhering to the Panopticon model developed by Jeremy Bentham.

Let us be clear, the Panopticon is an outdated and abusive model for corrections; it relies on a small number controlling a large number through the threat of constant supervision. Modern correctional management must look beyond disciplinary techniques based upon spatial arrangement and look toward truly transformative (educational) engagement with prison populations.

Still one can only speculate that the roundhouse prison is of interest to artists primarily because of its “purity” of form as understood – and communicated – through the formal qualities of composition within the photographic print.

USA. Illinois. 2002. Stateville Prison. F house. There were originally four circular cell houses radiating around a central mess hall. The buildings were based on Jeremy Bentham's 1787 design for the panopticon prison house. The first round house was completed in 1919, the other three were finished in 1927. F house is the last remaining panopticon cell house. It's used for segregating inmates from the general prison population and for holding inmates who are awaiting trial or transfer. -Doug DuBois & Jim Goldberg.

In 2002, Doug Dubois, along with Jim Goldberg, went to Stateville Correctional Centre, and took a picture (above) of the prison’s interior. The New York Times later published the photograph.

A while later, Dubois found out that Andreas Gursky had too gone to Stateville, apparently inspired by Doug and Jim’s photograph and took a picture himself (below). Gursky has admitted in his career he finds ideas for images in newspapers and other popular media. Gursky’s image put in context here, at the Brooklyn Rail.

Andreas Gursky, “Stateville, Illinois” (2002), C-print mounted on Plexiglas in artist’s frame. Courtesy Matthew Marks Gallery, New York.

So, this raises questions. Has Stateville prison inadvertently become a tease, and a subject for curious photographic artists?

Do the individual activities of artists have a bearing on one another? Should these images exist within the same discourse? Do photographic attentions of the 21st century have any relation to the need and stresses of current correctional politics in Illinois?

Does the ascendancy of Stateville onto gallery walls effect any significant – or measurable – impression of Stateville prison within public consciousness?

Or are Dubois, Goldberg, Gursky and Leventi just continuing an intrigue which has continued throughout the decades?

Postcard: Stateville Penitentiary, near Joliet, Illinois (ca. 1930s).

Postcard of an American panopticon: "Interior view of cell house, new Illinois State Penitentiary at Stateville, near Joliet, Ill." Source: Scanned from the postcard collection of Alex Wellerstein. (Copyright expired.)

Postcard of an American panopticon: "Interior view of cell house, new Illinois State Penitentiary at Stateville, near Joliet, Ill." Source: Scanned from the postcard collection of Alex Wellerstein. (Copyright expired.)

Photo of guard tower in round house at Stateville. Courtesy of Illinois State Historical Library. The second state prison was authorized at Joliet in 1857. It was built by convict laborers. That 135-year-old Joliet prison still houses more than 1,100 inmates. Meanwhile, Stateville. prison, also in the Joliet area, opened for business in 1917.

Photo of guard tower in round house at Stateville. Courtesy of Illinois State Historical Library. The second state prison was authorized at Joliet in 1857. It was built by convict laborers. That 135-year-old Joliet prison still houses more than 1,100 inmates. Meanwhile, Stateville. prison, also in the Joliet area, opened for business in 1917.

Inmates at Stateville Penitentiary in 1957. (Sun-Times News Group file photo)

Inmates at Stateville Penitentiary in 1957. (Sun-Times News Group file photo)

Prison guard in a security tower, Stateville Penitentiary, Joliet, Illinois, USA. © Underwood Photo Archives / SuperStock

Prison guard in a security tower, Stateville Penitentiary, Joliet, Illinois, USA. © Underwood Photo Archives / SuperStock

Panoptic guard tower at Stateville Prison, Stateville Prison (US Bureau of Prisons, 1949, p. 70), 1940s

Panoptic guard tower at Stateville Prison, Stateville Prison (US Bureau of Prisons, 1949, p. 70), 1940s

La Fenice, Venice, Italy, 2008.

La Fenice, Venice, Italy, 2008. © David Leventi

I first saw one of David Leventi‘s Opera House prints at Exposed, the 2009 Critical Mass Top 50 exhibition at the PCNW, Seattle in March this year. To be honest, I struggled to access it. I am grateful therefore, for his interview with Sarina Finkelstein in which Leventi outlines his motivations and emotional response to these architectures. Toward the end, Leventi discusses his recent interest and move toward roundhouse prisons as subjects – and how they compare to opera houses:

“[Stateville Correctional Center, Joliet, IL] happens to be a reverse opera house. It has basically the same architectural structure as an opera house, but the difference is in who is observing who. In an opera house, the audience of many is observing a few. In a jail, it’s the reverse, giving me the opportunity as a photographer to better understand what it must feel like to be a tenor performing for a full house, albeit with a captive audience.”

Prisoners in their cells, Stateville Correctional Center, Joliet, IL, 2010. © David Leventi

Leventi adds, “I have always had stage fright. Photographing from the center of a round prison is pure anxiety. The in-mates 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 really intimidated, but then I blanked everything out and focused on photographing. It must be the same for the performer.”

Leventi adds that in the case of both opera houses and prisons, access is the most difficult aspect of his work. No surprise there!

All interesting stuff. I’ll be eager to see his continued progress on this subject matter. Roundhouse prisons are a rarity these days; Bentham’s Panopticon is more likely to crop up in discourses on philosophy than it is in those of criminology or correctional management.

Leventi’s images of opera houses and Stateville prison are reminiscent of some of Richard Ross’ photographs from Architecture of Authority. And, likewise, Leventi plans to look at churches and religious buildings, presumably drawing more parallels between these complete spaces.

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