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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
You probably know about it because I haven’t been shy to promote it; it is one of my proudest achievements. I’d like to take this opportunity to share with you some thoughts on the Noorderlicht team and publish some installation shots. Part debrief, part abridged journal entries.
The show balanced two interrelated parts. One could not exist with out the other.
The main section of Cruel and Unusual looked exactly like a tradition photo show – ordered, framed prints of 11 named photographers. Cerebral and reliable. Mindful. The mind.
The counterpart was the PPOTR wall – a “mayhemic reflection” of some of the stories and images I encountered during Prison Photography on the Road. It included the photographs and quotes of another 18 photographers.
The PPOTR wall was messy, imperfect, unmediated, and attached to the core of my sprawling interest in prison imagery. It was the best solution Hester and I could think of to reflect our frantic immersion in international, blogging photo-territories. Physical, with tentacles, corporal. The body.
Body and the mind are inseparable. They communication with one another through a central nervous system. Noorderlicht, our host was backbone, nerve centre and sensitivity.
Outside of my home country (and my comfort zone) I clamped onto my host. Noorderlicht gallery connected mind and body; perfection with imperfection; polished ideas with raw, in-process threads; finished photographs with found stories.
The PPOTR wall was the first time I’ve tried to bring my sprawling project to some sort of overview suitable for visual consumption (lecture Powerpoint presentations excepted). As such, I was required to direct the PPOTR installation.
It is at the point of installation, one begins to appreciate the attitudes of the host and its staff.
As a practitioner with little experience in installation, the Noorderlicht installation team of Marco, Ype and Margriet were supportive without qualification, enthused, and willing to make gentle interventions when necessary. Their relaxed professionalism is one reflected through the organization from top to bottom. I worked with Charissa Caron on press liaison, with gallery director Olaf Veenstra on business decisions. Geert printed the work. There was always fresh coffee on hand. There were flowers in the gallery. At the opening they let dogs come in to see the artwork!
Noorderlicht is more than a workplace. It is a home.
It was somewhat of a risk for Noorderlicht to commission two photobloggers to curate. Yes, we have the knowledge and the online networks, but blogging (writing emails, forging prose, editing online galleries) is very different to herding photographers and liaising with gallery staff for a physical show.
I should say that Hester is a much more accomplished gad about phototown with a long CV of collaborations and in the past year has taken on the role of curator at large for the Empty Quarter Gallery, Dubai. Her knowledge and discipline propelled the pre-show nuts-and-bolts organizing. Without her, I’d have been knocked on my arse early in the venture.
There is a reason Noorderlicht took a risk on us though. It is because they do it often. Noorderlicht is probably best known for its international photography festival. The size and reputation of their festival is astounding given the foundation’s modest size. Take a look through the festival archives and see how many big name photographers showed their work at Noorderlicht before they became big names. They are pioneers.
Groningen is in the north of the Netherlands, 3 hours drive from Amsterdam and the rest of the cultural heart of Holland in the west and south (den Haag, Utrecht, Lieden and Rotterdam). Because of this Noorderlicht often gets overlooked or pigeonholed. I think in some cases, folk might be slow to acknowledge Noorderlicht’s accomplishments. We know how London and NYC dominate the cultural psyches of the UK and the U.S., and I think a similar imbalance persists in the Netherlands. If I am in anyway correct – and I wish I were not – then this is everybody’s loss.
The risk paid off.
Cruel and Unusual was extended by a week due to public demand. Visitor numbers have been substantial and the Dutch press went doolally over it. National radio, newspapers, magazine features – the whole shebang.
This does not surprise me. For many reasons, the subject matter is compelling. But I think the show has been a success because there is a dearth of discussion about prisons in Europe. As grand an ambition it may sound, Hester and I hoped the show would be a warning shot across the bows of Europe: DON’T REPEAT AMERICA’S MISTAKES. DON’T MASS INCARCERATE! It would seem people were hungry for Cruel and Unusual because the topic was a challenging breath of fresh air. Much of the work was also being shown in Europe for the first time. As thrilling as photography can be, I think the show was a thrill.
At the opening, were visitors from Amsterdam photo circles. It was huge validation to welcome knowledgeable folk venturing such a distance from their reliable cultural locale. Another indicator of legitimacy.
I am grateful the show was a success. Prior, I didn’t think about it; I didn’t know how to define success with a show. And I don’t know what I’d have done if it had been a flop!
I’m happy for all the beautiful staff at Noorderlicht that it has worked out. Hester and I were treated like family. That’s not an exaggeration – I’ll leave you with the words of Ton Broekhuis, Noorderlicht Foundation Director as written to me in an email following my return to the U.S.
“Pete, you mentioned ‘being welcomed into the Noorderlicht family’. You did not mention leaving the Noorderlicht family, which is reasonable. Everyone who joins the family by free will makes – at the same time – a promise to come back. Family is family. It is forever.”
PRESS FOR CRUEL AND UNUSUAL
American Photo: “There’s a wide range of photography blogs on the internet, but how would it be possible to measure their impact on the real world? It’s difficult to see the offline effect of an idea published online. […] We’re interested to see what other ways photography bloggers choose to usher their projects into the real world, and Brook certainly sounds excited. “This is going to sound crazy,” he said, “but I’ve never seen these works any bigger than 600 pixels wide on a screen.” Spoken like a true 21st-century curator.”
Elizabeth Avedon: “Noorderlicht Gallery is producing a ‘must-have’ catalog for Cruel and Unusual, designed as a newspaper by Pierre Derks in an edition of 4,000. Along with visuals from the main exhibition, the catalog contains articles, interviews, ephemera and material from photographers Pete Brook encountered during his crowd-funded road-trip through the U.S.” (One and Two and Three)
Daylight Magazine: “What steps are being taken to productively rehabilitate inmates, rather than simply secluding them from society and releasing them once their term is up? The Nooderlicht Photogallery has curated a show from nine women photographers to explore the effect that mass imprisonment has had on our sense of justice and virtue.”
Marc Feustel: “Brook and Keijser write two of the most dynamic and esoteric blogs that you will find on the web. To state the obvious, prisons are not exactly a sexy subject and the fact that they have managed to put this show together is very impressive. Instead of a ‘traditional’ exhibition catalogue, the curators have put together a newspaper in an attempt to reach more readers than an expensive photobook could. The world of photography online can be an exasperating, sprawling mess, but the fact that it can lead to projects such as this one makes it genuinely worthwhile.”
Stan Banos: “If you’re interested in documentary photography and interviews with the top notch photographers who made the work, Cruel and Unusual [newspaper] is very much worth the look.”
Greg Ruffing: “How citizens (aka taxpayers) understand the prison system and life behind bars, and how do they formulate their thoughts and convictions about mass incarceration based on the information they receive (and where that info is filtered through)? Cruel and Unusual gets to the heart of that issue by examining how prisons and prisoners are presented in images, and how those images are created, distributed, and consumed.”
Colin Pantall: “It is testament to how the internet and blogs are having a real impact that is breaking new ground and making new visual discoveries and connections.”
No Caption Needed: “Cruel and Unusual will provide another occasion to consider how the carceral system condemns those within and without, and how photography can reveal and build relationships where before there was only confinement, within and without.”
re-PHOTO: “Regular readers will know that I’ve often mentioned Pete Brook’s Prison Photography blog on these pages. He’s someone who has often raised interesting issues, both photographic and political, and the forthcoming show Cruel and Unusual at Noorderlicht which he is curating together with Hester Keijser looks to continue in that vein.” (One and Two)
Hamburg Art & Culture blog
Dutch free daily, De Pers ran a double spread of Scott Houston’s Arizona Female Chain Gang work. Dutch and Google translated English.
Noorderlicht has links to the De Pers article as a PDF and also a PDF of the Vrij Nederland feature on Alyse Emdur’s work (Dutch only)
And finally, a Feature Shoot interview I did with about how the road-trip and exhibition have shaped the Prison Photography “Project”.
Friend of Prison Photography, Emiliano Granado, likes football as much as he rocks at photography.
We pooled our knowledge to pair each country competing in South Africa with a photographer of the same nationality.
ALG Algeria – Christian Poveda
ENG England – Stephen Gill
SVN Slovenia – Klavdij Sluban (French of Slovenian origin … I know, I know, but you try to find a Slovenia born photographer!)
USA United States – Bruce Davison
Emiliano has been posting images from each of the photographers and doubled up on a few nations where the talent pool is teeming. You can see them all over on his Tumblr account, A PILE OF GEMS
* Don’t even begin arguing about who should represent the USA. It is a never-ending debate.
* I’ll be honest, finding photographers for the African nations was tricky, even for a web-search-dork like myself. But then we knew about the shortcomings of distribution and promotion within the industry, didn’t we?
* For Chile, we had to look to the past legend Larrain. I’ll be grateful if someone suggest a living practitioner.
* North Korean photographer, by name, anyone? We had to fall back on van Houtryve because he got inside the DPR.
* Rineke Dijkstra was one of approximately 4 thousand-trillion dutch photographers who are everywhere.
* Araki was the easy choice. Ill admit – I know next to nothing about Japanese photography (Marc, help?)
* I wanted a few more political photographers in there, while Emiliano goes for arty stuff. I think we found a nice balance overall.
* And, SERIOUSLY, name me a Paraguayan photographer! PLEASE.