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The banality of the design is on full display. The windowed room is where lethal chemicals are stored and used. Courtesy of the California Department of Rehabilitation and Corrections.
In 2006, the State of California approved a plan to construct a new execution chamber at San Quentin Prison. This week, The Avery Review published an article by Raphael Sperry titled Death by Design: An Execution Chamber at San Quentin State Prison which breaks down the budgeting, the politics and the design wrapped up in the contentious project. Not to mention the secrecy surrounding many details. Just as we’ve learnt about supply chains of chemicals for new drug “cocktails” being used by States to murder people, so too Sperry takes an in-depth look at the manufacturers behind the apparatus of death. It’s a wonderful, informed and terrifying breakdown of what we do to deliver “justice.” It’s a lovely foil to my past lyrics on the aqua green aesthetics of murder at San Quentin and it reveals the absurdity of the death penalty, the most vicious and foolishly symbolic of punishments.
“The Lethal Injection Chamber is a project that teeters on the edge of visibility and invisibility,” writes Sperry. It’s a project all about sight — political oversight, design based upon sight-lines for both executioner and witnesses. Sperry’s insights are chilling and revelatory. Below, I’ve selected the parts that intrigued me most, but you really should head over to The Avery Review to read the piece in full.
CAD Model for San Quentin Lethal Injection Facility. Courtesy of the California Department of Rehabilitation and Corrections.
DEATH BY DESIGN
Painted sheetrock walls, resilient flooring, vinyl cove base, and fluorescent lighting are used in a thoroughly predictable and pedestrian manner, much like a dentist’s office in a strip mall. The buttresses of the adjacent prison housing block, which a more creative designer might have incorporated, are instead covered by new framing; a storage room is used to occupy one of these irregular alcoves. But there is more to this design than meets the eye. Sometimes the banal is not ordinary.
The all-new facility for lethal injection provides more workspace around the body of the condemned man, an adjacent secure workspace and chemical storage room, and separated viewing areas for the various categories of observers. […] Bureaucratic skullduggery initially led to an unrealistically low project budget of $399,000: just under the $400,000 requirement to request legislative authorization of the project.7 Perhaps some secret executive-branch projects stay secret; in this case the state legislature found out about the project, causing further delays (they weren’t happy about having been hoodwinked) and an eventual approved budget increase to over $850,000. This included the use of inmate labor provided by the California Department of Rehabilitation and Corrections (CDCR) vocational training program.
The general layout of the suite of rooms was borrowed from previously completed projects in other states. Unlike in other states, where death chamber design materials are generally only available when they have been released in response to lawsuits, the final project was presented on a tour that included the federal judge presiding in the case, reporters, and a press release that included output of the CAD model used to design the project (now no longer available). Still, when I made a public request for the identity of the architect(s) and engineer(s) responsible for the project, CDCR would not provide an answer.
The Lethal Injection Chamber is a project that teeters on the edge of visibility and invisibility. CDCR exercised unusual control of the project budget in order to try to keep the project invisible. Yet a floor plan of the design proposal eventually became part of the court record submitted by CDCR to prove the constitutionality of the new facility, making it permanently available to the public. Newspapers published photos of the competed chamber and ancillary spaces and developed infographics of the layout. Nevertheless, today it is an incredibly difficult space for members of the public to visit unless they are part of the highly specified group of participants in or observers of an execution.
Perhaps in the same spirit, or perhaps because of the general obsession with the control of sight lines in prison environments, visibility within the Lethal Injection Room itself is carefully controlled. Witnessing the death of the condemned man is a central component of the execution ritual, with prescribed access for family members of the condemned man, family members of the victim, prison staff, and witnesses to verify that vengeance has been earned for the aggrieved public. Accordingly, the execution room is something of a fishbowl, surrounded on all sides by windows, including a band of wall-to-wall glazing for the public witness and media viewing room. However, mirrored glass is used along the line where the victim’s family might see the inmate’s family: a line that crosses the body of the condemned man, as the two families are positioned at opposite ends of the room just as they are presumed to be of opposite sympathies regarding the murder. Although it is not uncommon for the family of the victim in capital cases to object to the execution of the perpetrator, either out of a generalized objection to killing or after personal reconciliation, the plan denies the opportunity for this kind of potentially healing contact between families. Just as positions of state-driven authority are fixed in a courtroom, with a jury one level up and the judge above them, the dichotomous relations of innocent and guilty inherent in the finality of the death penalty are fixed around the body of the condemned man.
The death penalty debate, especially in California, now hangs on a tenuous balance between the desire for revenge (an “eye for an eye”) and revulsion at the spectacle of suffering driven by our own blood lust (with a subtext of racism). CDCR—the department charged with conducting executions, and the owner of the chamber in architectural parlance—would clearly prefer to go about its business and has a long history of avoiding public oversight (unsuccessfully in this case), but continuing the death penalty is subject to judgment by a California electorate that is trending toward abolition. Part of the design’s banality (and its low-budget, medical undertones) may be intended to visually deescalate the death penalty debate in order to perpetuate the status quo. But perhaps even the CDCR embodies the same unresolved questions about execution that continue to reverberate in ballot referendums, courtrooms, and public debates. The bland nature of the execution chamber may also indicate a lack of investment in the procedure’s future, a realization that this is no permanent edifice but rather a set of rooms that may be demolished or at least renovated for some other purpose before long.
Raphael Sperry is an architect and green building consultant, President of Architects, Designers, Planners for Social Responsibility, and Adjunct Professor at California College of the Arts where he teaches the course “Rights, Power, and Design.” He is writing a book on architecture and human rights.
THE AVERY REVIEW
The Avery Review is a new online journal dedicated to thinking about books, buildings, and other architectural media. It’s aim is to explore the broader implications of a given object of discourse (whether text, film, exhibition, building, project, or urban environment) and to test and expand the reviewer’s own intellectual commitments.
The Lethal Injection Facility is the windowless box adjacent to the older, still functional cell block. The CMU exterior walls predate the interior renovations for the new death chamber.
Injection Room. Window and hose ports to Infusion Control Room at right, mirrored window for victim family viewing in center, public witness / media gallery on extreme left. Courtesy of the California Department of Rehabilitation and Corrections.
This is the last week you have to catch the ADPSR-created exhibition Sentenced: Architecture & Human Rights at UC Berkeley’s College of Environmental Design.
UPDATE, 05/14/2013: Harpers Books confirmed that the collection was bought by an individual at Paris Photo LA.
At Paris Photo: Los Angeles, this week, a collection of California prison polaroids were on display and up for sale. The asking price? $45,000.
The price-tag is remarkable, but so too is the collection’s journey from street fair obscurity to the prestigious international art fair. It is a journey that took only two years.
The seller at Paris Photo LA, Harper’s Books named the anonymous and previously unheard-of collection The Los Angeles Gang and Prison Photo Archive. Harper’s has since removed the item from its website, but you can view a cached version here. The removal of the item leads me too presume that it has sold. Whether that is the case or not, my intent here is not to speculate on the current price but on the trail of sales that landed the vernacular prison photos in a glass case for the eyes and consideration of the photo art world.
The Los Angeles Gang and Prison Photo Archive on display at Paris Photo LA in April, 2013.
FROM OBSCURITY TO COVETED FINE ART COMMODITY
In Spring 2012, I walked into Ampersand Gallery and Fine Books in NE Portland and introduced myself to owner Myles Haselhorst. Soon after hearing my interest in prison photographs, he mentioned a collection of prison polaroids from California he had recently acquired.
You guessed it. The same collection. Where did Myles acquire it and how did it get to Paris Photo LA?
“I bought the collection from a postcard dealer at the Portland Postcard Show, which at the time was in a gymnasium at the Oregon Army National Guard on NE 33rd,” says Haselhorst of the purchase in February, 2011.
As the postcard dealer trades at shows up and down the west coast, Haselhorst presumes that dealer had picked up the collection in Southern California.
Haselhorst paid a low four figure sum for the collection – which includes two photo albums and numerous loose snapshots totaling over 400 images.
“I thought the collection was both culturally and monetarily valuable,” says Haselhorst. “At the time, individual photos like these were selling on eBay for as much as $30 each, often times more. I bought them with the intention of possibly publishing a book or making an exhibition of some kind.”
Indeed, Haselhorst and I discussed sitting down with the polaroids, leafing through them, and beginning research. As I have noted before, prison polaroids are emerging online. I suspect this reflects a fraction of a fledgling market for contemporary prison snapshots. Not all dealers bother – or need to bother – scanning their sale items.
Haselhorst and I were busy with other ventures and never made the appointment to look over the material.
“In the end, I didn’t really know what I could add to the story,” says Haselhorst. “And, I didn’t want to exploit the images by publishing them.”
Another typical and lucrative way to exploit the images would have been to break up the collection and sell them as single lots through eBay or at fairs, but Haselhorst always thought more of the collection then the valuation he had estimated.
In January 2013, Haselhorst sold the collection in one lot to another Portland dealer, oddly enough, at the Printed Matter LA Art Book Fair.
“Ultimately, after sitting on them for more than two years, I decided they would be a perfect fit for the fair, not only because it was in LA, but also because the fair offers an unmatched cross section of visual printed matter. It was hard putting a price on the collection, but I sold them for a number well below the $45,000 mark,” he says.
Haselhorst made double the amount that he’d paid for them.
The second dealer, who purchased them from Haselhorst, quickly flipped the collection and sold it at the San Francisco Antiquarian Book Fair for an undisclosed number. The third buyer, also a dealer, had them priced at $25,000 at the recent New York Antiquarian Book Fair.
From these figures, we should estimate that Harper’s likely paid around $20,000 for the collection.
Harper’s Books’ brief description (and interpretation) of the collection reads:
Taken between 1977 and 1993. By far the largest vernacular archive of its kind we’ve seen, valuable for the insight it provides into Los Angeles gang, prison, and rap cultures. The first photo album contains 96 Polaroid photographs, many of which have been tagged (some in ink, others with the tag etched directly into the emulsion) by a wide swath of Los Angeles gang members. Most of the photos are of prisoners, with the majority of subjects flashing gang signs.
The second album has 44 photos and images from car magazines appropriated to make endpapers; the “frontispiece” image is of a late 30s-early 40s African-American woman, apparently the album-creator’s mother, captioned “Moms No. 1. With a Bullet for All Seasons.”
In addition, 170 loose color snapshots and 100 loose color Polaroids dating from 1977 through the early 1990s.
In my opinion, the little distinction Harper’s makes between gang culture and rap music culture is offensive. The two are not synonymous. This is an important and larger discussion, but not one to follow here in this article.
HOW SIGNIFICANT A COLLECTION IS THIS?
Harper’s is right on one thing. The newly named ‘Los Angeles Gang and Prison Photo Archive’ is a unique collection. Never before have I seen a collection this large. Visually, the text etched directly into the emulsion is a captivating feature of many of the polaroids.
We have seen plenty of vernacular prison photographs from the 19th and early to mid 20th century hit the market. Recently, a collection of 710 mugshots from the San Francisco Police Department made in the 1920’s sold twice within short-shrift. First for $2,150 in Portland, OR and then for $31,000 in New York just four months later! At the time of the sale, AntiqueTrader.com suggested it “may [have] set new record for album of vernacular photography.”
As a quick aside, and for the purposes of thinking out loud, might it be that polaroids that reference Southern California African American prison culture are – in the eyes of collectors and cultural-speculators – as exotic, distant and mysterious as sepia mugshots of last century? How does thirty years differ to one hundred when it comes to mythologising marginalised peoples? Does the elevation of gang ephemera from the gutter to traded high art mean anything? I argue, the market has found a ripe and right time to romanticise the mid-eighties and in particular real-life figures from the era that resemble the stereotypes of popular culture. It is in some ways a distasteful exploitation of people after-the-fact. Perhaps?
WHERE DOES THE $45,000 PRICE-TAG COME FROM?
Just because the so-called ‘Los Angeles Gang and Prison Photo Archive’ is rare, doesn’t mean similar collections do not exist, it may just mean they have not hit the market. This is, I argue, because no market exists … until now.
If the price tag seems crazy, it’s because it is. But consider this: one of the main guiding factors for valuations of art is previous sales of similar items. However, in the case of prison polaroids, there is no real discernible market. Harper’s is making the market, so they can name their price.
“All in all, it’s pretty crazy,” says Haselhorst, “especially when you think about how I bought it here in Portland over on 33rd, just a few miles from our gallery.”
All these details probably make up only the second chapter of this object’s biography. The first chapter was their making and ownership by the people in the photographs. Later chapters will be many. Time will tell whether later chapters will be attached to astronomical figures.
Harper’s suggests that rich “narrative arcs might be uncovered by careful research.” I agree. And these are importatn chapters to be written too.
I hope that more of these types of images with their narratives will emerge. If these types of vernacular prison images are to command larger and larger figures in the future, I hope that those who made them and are depiction therein make the sales and make the cash.
As it stands the speculation and rapid price increases, can be interpreted as easily as crass appropriation as it can connoisseurship. If these images deserve a $45,000 price tag, they deserve a vast amount of research to uncover the stories behind them. Who knows if the (presumed) new owner has the intent or access to the research resources required?
Along that same vein, here we identify a difference between the art market and the preservationists; between free trade capitalism and the efforts of museums, historians and academics; between those that trade rare items and those that are best equipped to do the research on rare items.
Whether speculative or accurate, the $45,000 price is way beyond the reach of museums. Photography and art dealers who are limber by comparison to large, immobile museums are working the front lines of preservation.
“Some might say that selling [images such as these] is exploitation, but a dealer’s willingness to monotize something like this is one form of cultural preservation,” argues Haselhorst. “If I had not been in a position to both see the collection’s significance and commodify it, albeit well below the final $45,000 mark, these photographs could have easily ended up in the trash.”
Loose Polaroids from the Los Angeles Gang and Prison Photo Archive as displayed by Harper’s Books at Paris Photo LA, Los Angeles, April, 2013.
A cover to one of the two albums that make up the Los Angeles Gang and Prison Photo Archive.
A temporary gig as a set photographer took Jordana Hall to San Quentin State Prison; her heart and consciousness propelled countless return visits. She has worked particularly closely with men who were convicted when juvenile (under 18) and were sentenced to life in prison.
Hall has worked as a volunteer in existing programs; launched her own project that melds poetry, family letters, snapshots and her own portraits; and visited the hometowns and families of prisoners. The ongoing body of work Home Is Not Here is part of Hall’s senior thesis exhibition. It will be on show – beginning April 2013 – at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, DC.
I wanted to learn more about Hall’s motives and discoveries.
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Prison Photography (PP): How did you get access to San Quentin State Prison?
Jordana Hall (JH): My work at San Quentin started in June 2011. I was hired as the set photographer for a documentary (working title, Crying Sideways) by SugarBeets Productions. The documentary details the stories of a group inside San Quentin called KIDCAT (Kids Creating Awareness Together).
PP: KIDCAT is a group of lifers sentenced as juveniles, correct?
JH: Yes, you can follow KIDCAT on Facebook.
PP: They describe themselves as “men who grew up in prison and as a group have matured into a community that cares for others, is responsible to others, and accountable for their own actions.”
JH: I began attending KIDCAT’s bi-weekly group meetings as a volunteer. During this period of volunteering, I developed a working relationship with the members of KIDCAT. Showing up when I said I would, being accountable, and most of all keeping an open mind and heart while inside re-assured the men of KIDCAT that I was a trustworthy member.
Then in June 2012, I started working on my senior thesis for my Photojournalism BFA at the Corcoran College of Art and Design. I approached Lieutenant Sam Robinson, Public Information Officer at San Quentin, with the idea of starting the “Home Is Not Here” project. If I had not had the relationship that I do with the men of KIDCAT, Sam would not have been so willing to help. It really is this relationship that I have with the group that has allowed me so many opportunities to continue my work there. I’ve been going into San Quentin for a year and a half now, and have only been able to bring my camera three times.
To be granted access to San Quentin – even minimal access – requires a lot of work. There needs to be a legitimate return for the prison community. In my case, publishing my work to Young Photographer’s Alliance, posting to my website, and eventually in an exhibition at the Corcoran Gallery of Art was enough justification for the prison to allow me to continue working inside.
I never take my access for granted.
There are strict rules about what you can and cannot do, wear and say. If I slip up – even just a little – my access is on the line.
PP: Why did you take on the project?
JH: After hearing the inmate’s stories during the documentary filming, I realized that all of them were just teenagers who were dealt a bad hand. This is not to say they don’t take responsibility for what they did. They definitely do. Their stories resonated to my core; the stories would impact anyone who heard them. I left the prison gates that day realizing that they could be my brother, father, or best friend. I began to think about their families. Most of the men in the group are in their mid-thirties; they have spent more than half of their lives in prison. I thought about how they struggle to keep working relationships with their loved ones for so many years through the prison walls. That wondering led me to my senior thesis project.
Home Is Not Here documents the relationships between an incarcerated person and his family. I seek out the ways in which their relationship can be kept when there are so many barriers involved.
PP: What have you learnt?
JH: I’ve learned that the families of incarcerated people are the least documented victims of crime. Communities shun them for “raising a criminal.” There are limited resources available for them to get help. These families mourn the loss of their loved one’s free life with little to no support.
I learned the truth in the statement, “When one person is incarcerated, at least five people ‘serve the time’ with them.” I have seen family members go about their daily lives with a piece of their heart locked away in prison.
JH: I learned that letters from a child to their “Tio Miguel” (who they have never met outside of prison visitations) would break your heart. I learned that even the toughest looking men still get tears in their eyes when you ask about their family.
I am still learning.
PP: What did the prisoners think of being photographed?
JH: The first day they were most interested in seeing how a digital camera works. I am very hands-on with my subjects, and with the permission of Lt. Sam Robinson, I handed my second camera body to the guys to play with on the breaks during filming. It was both funny as well as saddening to watch their amazement at the foreign device.
The first time I went in, I asked to see an inmate’s cell. The guys all looked at each other, waiting for someone to volunteer. One by one they denied my request to see their space. We ended up going to a stranger’s cell, just so I could poke my head in from the door. Soon after, I fully realized the shame that comes over them when asked about their cells. It is the only space that is their own, but it also the cage they are locked in at night. These 6 x 12 cement cages are a place both of safety and of degradation.
After I stuck around for a year, I approached the cell situation, again. This time they were excited to show me their space. Their family photos on the wall, bookshelf with notebooks, sketchbooks, and wall markings left from previous inmates. “Stay Focused” was scrawled into the yellowed paint next to the metal bunk. It took some time and a lot of trust building for me to get on that level with them.
PP: Did you give the men prints?
JH: Giving the guys the prints is absolutely one of my favorite parts!
The Home Is Not Here project had me traveling to the hometowns of three men. I went with only small clues of what and where to photograph – “The Dairy Queen where I took my first girlfriend on my first date,” or “The restaurant named after the city in Vietnam where my family was from.”
When I brought back prints from my trips, the guys were blown away by how much had changed, and how much had stayed the same.
I was asked by one inmate to visit the grave of his grandmother. They were extremely close and she passed away while he was in prison. When he saw the photograph I took there, he began to cry. It was almost as if I had delivered him a physical place to grieve her passing.
I try to give back to my subjects as much as I can. I try not to be that photographer that comes in, gets the story, and never comes back. They give so much of themselves when they allow me to photograph them, giving prints to them is the least I can do.
PP: What did the staff think of being photographed?
JH: I never photographed the staff, although some day I hope to see some really thorough work done about the people who work in prisons. It would be a fascinating story.
PP: I agree. I’ve yet to see a photography project that suitably deals sympathetically and deeply the complex and stressful dynamics of correctional officers’ work and lives.
PP: Could photography serve a rehabilitative role, if used in a workshop format in prisons?
JH: I think a workshop on photography in a prison would be an incredible idea. These men are so introspective and have so much to offer, creatively. The documentation of life inside prison by an inmate could offer such insight for us all.
PP: Are prisoners invisible?
JH: Yes, I believe prisoners are invisible. Everything about the prison system is set up for them to be invisible, and stay invisible. To be silenced, and out of sight. What I aim to do with this project is to shed some light on a piece of an inmate’s life that is not seen. When people think prison photography they think of hardened criminals, drug addicts, grimy hands gripping cell door bars, and the underbelly of society. I am offering the alternative viewpoint, which is the humanity inside. These men are fathers, sons, brothers, friends, and they all have people who care about them. They also have built communities of support for each other, inside.
PP: What’s been the feedback to your the work?
JH: As I work I like to get feedback from my peers. A lot of people who see photographs of inmates and due to their preconceived notions will shake their head and walk away thinking, “What monsters…” but with the work I do, I try to side step this notion and say, “No, look closer.”
No matter what I do, some people will never see it the way I’d like them to, but for people who can be open-minded, the work gives an inside look to the humanity that exists inside prison, and awareness of the struggles of their families.
PP: Anything else you’d like to add?
JH: As I move forward in my thesis, I am turning my focus to just one inmate in particular, Miguel Quezada. This is the working statement:
“Estamos Contigo (We Are With You)” – Miguel Quezada (below) was incarcerated at age 16. Now 31, he has spent half of his entire life in prison. Due to a harsh judicial decision that he should serve his sentences consecutively, his first parole hearing is not until the year 2040. He will be 60 years old. Home, for Miguel, rests between the realities of life at San Quentin Prison today, memories of his childhood cut short, and dreams of a faraway tomorrow. His family shares this stress, mourning the loss of their loved one’s free life. From the part of South Modesto, California known for its lack of sidewalks and high crime rate, Miguel grew up in poverty with his parents who immigrated from Mexico. His mother and father, Arturo and Lucila, are almost completely illiterate, so writing letters takes a lot of time and energy. Miguel appreciates it when they do write, but loves when they send photographs. His nieces and nephew, who he has never met outside of prison visitations, write him frequently and give him a sense of connectivity to the outside world. Miguel is one of hundreds of men in the state of California with similar stories – serving life for a mistake made as a teenager. The barriers of the prison walls will never restrain the emotional longing of one human being to be with another.
PP: We look forward to checking in again soon. Thanks, Jordana.
JH: Thank you.
Nigel Poor (left) and Doug Dertinger (right).
The intersection of photography and prisons doesn’t always manifest as a photographer pointing his or her lens at incarcerated people.
Photography – or more specifically the discussion of it and associated issues – can enter relationships, education, exchange. Both the practice and theory of photography can be taught and learned within prisons.
Last September, Nigel Poor, Associate Professor of Photography at California State University, Sacramento contacted me to tell me about her volunteer role teaching the History of Photography at San Quentin State Prison. I was blown away. Never before had I come across a photo history class taught behind bars. Immediately, I made arrangements to meet Nigel and her co-teacher and fellow CSUS professor Doug Dertinger.
As faculty, Poor and Dertinger adapted their existing CSUS syllabus, covering photography from 1970 to the present. However, the California Department of Corrections understandably wanted veto power over slides presented during the course.
Depictions of drugs, violence, sex, children, nudity are problematic for prison administrations … “Which is about 95% of photography,” points out Poor.
Poor and Dertinger were helped out by the experience of Jody Lewen, director of the Prison University Project at San Quentin. Lewen is insistent that PUP teachers do not self-censor, but respectfully present their preferred teaching material and allow the burden – and justification – for any censorship to fall upon the prison administration.
The interaction, therefore, was unorthodox but successful: Poor presented her entire 12 week course to Scott Kernan, Under Secretary to the CDCr (now retired) and to Mike Martel, the then Warden at San Quentin … in two hours!
Of the entire course, only four images were deemed unsuitable, a surprising but pleasing result that Poor describes as “a triumph.”
With Poor focusing on portraits and Dertinger focusing on land use and media, they quickly schooled their students in line, formal composition and leapt from there into sophisticated readings of images.
“I told them the photograph is like a crime scene,” says Poor, “and it is ours from which to draw evidence.”
Poor and Dertinger talk about what a life-affirming experience teaching inside proved to be; about how the men in San Quentin were the “most present students” they’ve ever taught; how invigorating it is to have a passion that isn’t only about oneself; and about the responsibility to educate people in free society about the potential of incarcerated people, a “veiled population.”
“They were ready to travel,” says Dertinger of the students’ willingness to unleash their own emotions and imagination upon photographs read.
Interestingly, the idea that the photograph was not – is not – a reflection of truth was disconcerting for the many of the students. Obviously, the reliability, or not, of narrative and testimony may have had a more profound effect on the reality of their lives as compared to others not subject to the criminal justice system. If you can’t use the language of truth and reality when discussing photography (popularly considered to be objective), then can you use those concepts when discussing your own life?
We end the conversation on a high note: One of the students wrote a comparative analysis of Richard Misrach’s Drive-In Theatre, Las Vegas and one of Hiroshi Sugimoto’s Theatres. He wrote a 9-page essay during a four-week solitary confinement stint. He concluded Misrach’s work is about space; Sugimoto’s about time.
So impressed were Poor and Dertinger they got the essay into Misrach’s hands … and he read the essay to an audience of 2,500 at the November Pop-Up Magazine Event in San Francisco.
LISTEN TO OUR CONVERSATION AT THE PRISON PHOTOGRAPHY PODBEAN PAGE
© Richard Misrach. Drive-In Theatre, Las Vegas, 1987
© Hiroshi Sugimoto
There were two categories of interviewees I planned to connect with during PPOTR – photographers and prison reformers. I didn’t expect to meet many individuals who satisfied both definitions. Ruth Morgan does.
Morgan became director of Community Works, a restorative justice arts program in the San Francisco Bay Area in 1994. Prior to that, she was director of the Jail Arts Program, in the San Francisco County Jail system (1980-1994).
It should be noted that the county jail system is entirely different to the state prison system and operate under separate jurisdictions. County jails hold shorter term inmates.
For three remarkable years, Morgan and her colleague Barbara Yaley had free reign of San Quentin State Prison to interview and photograph the men. In 1979, it was the sympathetic Warden George Sumner who provided Morgan and Yaley access. In 1981, a new Warden at San Quentin abruptly cut-off access.
“I think there were a few reasons [we were successful],” explains Morgan. “Despite the fact I was a young woman, I had a big 2-and-a-quarter camera and a tripod and so they took me seriously. That helped us get the portraits and the stories we did.”
The San Quentin News (Vol. I.II, Issue 11, June, 1982) reported on Morgan and Yaley’s activities. The story Photo-Documentary Team Captures Essence of SQ can be read on page 3 of this PDF version of the newspaper.
Ruth and I talk about how the demographics of prison populations remain the same; her original attraction to the topic; the use of her photographs in the important Toussaint v. McCarthy case (1984) brought by the Prison Law Office against poor conditions in segregation cells of four Northern California prisons; why she never published the photos of men on San Quentin’s Death Row; and the emergence, funding for, and power of restorative justice.
I was interested to discover that photographs of San Quentin inmates played a formative role in Stefan Ruiz‘s career. At 4:45mins, Ruiz talks about his position as an art teacher at San Quentin and his compulsion to make portraits.
From a battered Fujifilm box held together with gaffer tape, Ruiz pulls out a wire bound album of prison portraits:
“I really wanted to take pictures of them so I started taking all these photos. I put this whole little notebook together … and I would carry this box [everywhere]. This was before laptops. I used to bring this to Europe all the time and I’d show this. This was what got me jobs.“
Ruiz goes on to explain that he was employed by Caterpillar to imitate the look of those San Quentin portraits. Ruiz’s contact at Caterpillar then moved to Camper and the relationship continued. After Camper Ruiz went to COLORS Magazine as Creative Director (Issues 55 – 60, April 2003 – April 2004). All the while, Ruiz was perfecting his “well-lit” and “polished” style.
Some observers are turned off by the fusion of art/documentary/fashion employed by Ruiz. Common criticism of this multi-genre work is that it can depict poverty as glamorous, violence as eye-candy, and people as consumable props in a visual world obsessed with surface.
The flaw to these dismissive crits is that cinema has been forging this type of imagery for decades; yet, we expect slick augmented reality in the moving image. Ruiz’s use of lights instead of B&W film and the blur of a Leica is hardly an attack on documentary and certainly not on realism (since when has photography ever plausibly claimed a monopoly on realism, anyway?).
Ruiz’s portraits have a solid footing in reality; they are devoid of photojournalist cliche and require participation from the subject. And as far as commercialism is concerned – at least in the case of COLORS – the relationship of money to Ruiz’s aesthetic experiments is acknowledged.
Ruiz likes to “work with the person.” From telenovela actors to hospital patients and clinicians and from rodeo queens to refugees, Ruiz has connected with his subjects through a transparent discussion about what they can achieve together with a device that records and stores their likeness.
The VBS profile of Stefan Ruiz* is a great introduction to his past, present and future trajectory. Highly recommended.
* I apologise for the crude use of screengrabs in this post.
He’s also working on Hidden Population, a personal project of unorthodox portraiture.
I suspect for Crippens, the ‘back of the head approach’ is a novel workaround of DoC legal restrictions on identifiable depictions of men in its custody. As applied to a US prison population, Crippens’ work is original and rather beguiling; how many of his subjects are aware of the camera’s glare? Does the notion of victimhood surface here? How often does the bowed head recur? It is very difficult to imply penitence in prison portraiture without relying on cliche. The doo-rags, beanie-hats, neck hair, peeping tattoos and ubiquitous blue cotton mean these images fluctuate between personal and abstract.
For such a simple idea, Crippens could go a long way with it. It is still a work in progress so I just want to bring your attention to it right now. Hopefully, I’ll get Kirk on PP soon to discuss it at length.
BACKS OF HEADS
To compose images of the back of the subjects’ heads is the same approach adopted by Eric de Vries for ‘Invisible Scars’ – portraits of the Khmer Rouge labour camps, Cambodia. In terms of political context, the two sets of subjects are constellations apart , but I thought the shared technique was worth noting.
In 2010, Kirk Crippens achieved significant success with Foreclosure, USA. He had three solo exhibitions of his and nine group shows throughout 2010. Crippens was named in Photolucida’s Critical Mass Top 50 for 2010. Foreclosure, USA also won the Blue Earth Prize For Best Project Photography at the PhotoAlliance 2010 Our World Portfolio Review. Crippens was recently nominated for the 2011 – 2013 Eureka Fellowship Program, a project of the Fleishhacker Foundation.
Earlier this morning I pointed out the riches of the Anne T. Kent California Room Collection, in the Marin County Free Library Archives. The San Quentin Little Olympics Field Meet 1930 Album deserves it own post.
Any sack race that has contestants cocooned up to their necks is a serious affair (image 2). Any tumble would hurt.
The tug-of-war (image 3) is fought on a remarkably complex purpose-built platform. It unfortunately looks like a rack.
I have no idea what narrative the parade (image 4) carries, but African American inmates donning hessian sacks painted to mimic “primitive” costume and carrying a whiter-than-whiter mustachioed swan-king is particularly discomforting.
Pole vault without a 60 inch crash-mat beneath the bar?
Lots to be said about cross-dressing and gender-bending in prisons, but not to be superimposed upon these 80 year old photographs. Two fascinating images.
And we just had Halloween. Who knew pie-eating contests (last image) produced zombies?