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Death Row with Inmate Mural (Sad Clown) in Sing Sing Correctional Facility. New York, 2011.
My parents are thinking about moving out of the house I grew up in. They asked me how I felt about it. In truth, I don’t mind one bit. Still, I appreciate them asking. Places hold memories, for sure, and it was mindful of them to ask my brothers and I how we felt about the house, its relationship to our memories, and a future without it. We Brooks, though, are a pragmatic bunch and feel that as soon as the house is vacated it stops being a home and just bricks and mortar for others to occupy and make their own memories. Likewise, we Brooks will make newer memories in my parents’ new home when we gather for holidays and so forth.
This occurred to me as I was browsing Emily Kinni‘s series Sites Of Execution. Kinni is interested in how quickly the function and memory of places change and her pictures demonstrate how rapidly change can occur. She has photographed not just former sites of execution in the U.S. but, specifically, the former sites of execution in the 17 states that have abolished capital punishment. If the places in Kinni’s hold memories they are violent, sad, retributive and final.
Original Execution Chamber. Electric Chair and Lethal Injection. Now Unused Conference Room in the New Jersey State Prison. New Jersey, 2011.
Original Site of Execution. Hanging. Lobby of the State office Department. Alaska, 2011.
I noted Kinni’s work 18-months ago, with criticisms that the series was not complete and that her statement was unintentionally misleading. I am pleased to report that my ‘Watch This Space’ caution has been met with a well-rounded project. Kinni’s survey of the sites (which took over two years) is thorough and her elusive images require work by the viewer to decipher what’s going on. The variety of reused spaces are convincing reminders of how fleetingly history and memory deal with even the most traumatising events.
Interestingly, Kinni is not a crusader for the abolition movement; her images are not intended as a call to challenge death penalty laws in 33 states … and nor do they read that way.
“My affinity for these sites, cannot be considered without the political and historical issues of the death penalty, but it isn’t where it begins,” says Kinni. “My interest is in the evolution of these sites – how places for execution are changed and what the sites become eliminating their historical relevance.”
Many photographers have dealt with memory and landscape by contrasting their images of seemingly benign sites with captions that describe past horrors or crimes. Four worth mentioning would be Eva Leitolf‘s Looking For Evidence – a survey of hate crimes in Europe; Jessica Ingram‘s A Civil Rights Memorial – photographs of hate crimes in America; Joel Sternfeld‘s Landscape In Memoriam – photographs of interpersonal, corporate and environmental crimes; and Taryn Simon‘s The Innocents - an obfuscation of memory and testimony.
Tensions between apparently innocuous images and their factual captions will always capture my attention. Such purposeful tensions are engaging.
Old Sparky, West Virginia Penitentiary. 2011 (left); Leather Mask and Three Switches, West Virginia Penitentiary. 2011 (right).
Gas Chamber on the Spectator Side. Gas Chamber. Still sits in the now abandoned New Mexico State State Penitentiary. New Mexico, 2011.
Original Execution Chamber. Electric Chair. Now a Vocational Space in Sing Sing Correctional Facility. New York, 2011.
Some of Kinni’s sites are no longer prisons and she was helped with her research by local experts.
“I was fortunate enough to meet people among a select few – if not the only people living – who possess facts and documents about where the last executions took place,” says Kinni. “They owned historical evidence within their personal collections and homes that didn’t exist elsewhere. Without their knowledge, I would have been at a huge loss.”
In other cases, where prison space has been repurposed, Kinni experienced the same labyrinthine negotiations common of prison photography projects.
“The level of negotiation varied state by state,” she says. “The hardest negotiations were in states where people I had begun communication with particular officials, who changed positions or retired unbeknownst to me.”
I like this project. Take a look.
Original Site of Execution. Hanging. Now a Janitorial Break Room. Minnesota, 2011.
The Original Site of Execution. Hanging. Now a parking lot in the Oahu Community Correctional Center. Hawaii, 2012.
Original Site of the Last Execution. Hanging. Now a Department Store. Rhode Island, 2012.
Original Site of Execution. Hanging. Now a Residence. Wisconsin, 2012.
Original site of the Execution Chamber. Was last used as a basketball court for inmates until the Prison closed. The chamber has been recreated using original materials inside the prison walls in its own museum. Electric Chair. West Virginia Penitentiary, 2011.
Original Site of Execution, Hanging. The prison was torn down and buried below the field which is now in it’s place. A Sign raises a question of what will be next for the site. Maine, 2012.
Original Site of Execution. Electric Chair. Now a Retirement Home. Vermont, 2012.
Original Site of Execution, Electric Chair. The prison was torn down and is now a highway lane. Massachusetts, 2012.
Gas Chamber, Closed, New Mexico State Penitentiary. 2011 (left); Gas Chamber, Open, New Mexico State Penitentiary, 2011 (right).
Site of the Original Execution Chamber, Hanging. Now Empty Space inside Iowa State Penitentiary. Iowa, 2011.
A couple of comments that have blown me away in the last 24 hours.
From Patrick McInerney;
The similarity between Steve’s photographs and the scientific studies of psychiatric inmates the mid nineteenth century asylums is striking. (For a particularly good example see pictures of psychiatric inmates in Benedict Augustin Morel’s 1857 ‘Traites des Degenerescences: physiques, intellectuelles et morales de l’espèce Humaine’
And its interesting that they have a similar effect today as the early images did in the past, i.e. they encourage us to read the prisoner’s “true” character in their faces, with all the difficulty that incurs. It was obviously not Steve’s intent to mimic 19th c. scientists but maybe its quite understandable he feels that the style has become a bit jaded … it has after all been around for some time!
Steve was jaded not only by the limits of the portrait to communicate but also by the disconnected agendas viewer brought to his works, “People respond to these portraits for their own reasons. A lot of the reasons have nothing to do with prison justice. Some of them like pictures of handsome young boys; they like to see beautiful people, or vulnerable people, whatever. That started to blow my mind after a while.”
It is a serious issue within photography that we are all lazy viewers. The less curious and less open we are, the more likely we are to fall back on pleasing, self-affirming bias.
Three months ago I posted some images of the Prison Ship/Torture Museum, The Success
Today, I received this;
I believe it was around 1944 that a prison ship, maybe it was The Success came to Cleveland Ohio at Lake Erie. I remember seeing the torture devices and one sticks in my mind to this day. I was told it was called the ‘Iron Maiden’, but your photos call it the ‘Wooden Coffin’.
Although I saw it as a child the memory stays with me to this day.
Age following age has propagated its own fascination with the macabre and majority-assigned human defect. From “scientific” research to childhood memory the will to understand difference has played out (and continues to play out) the shifting – and ultimately false – parameters of normal.