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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.
In Germany, as in most European nations, prisons often lie within towns and cities; European prisons & jails are older than the housing estates and urban developments that, ultimately, came to surround them.
In Britain, castle-like Victorian-era prisons were the dominant type until the seventies when they were replaced by draft-proof, medium-sized institutions in rural locations. Bricks and mortar made way for concrete & razor wire. That said, a few town-centre “citadels” such as Preston Prison and Lancaster Castle still operate within Her Majesty’s Prison Service, the latter dating back to the 14th century!
In the American penal landscape, a high proportion of prisons (and all new builds) are outside of conurbations – sometimes isolated in the mountains or desert, sometimes just within grasp of a rural town to prop or establish a local economy.
Christiane Feser‘s photographs could not be mistaken as American, just as the New Topographics couldn’t be mistaken for anything but American. I don’t want to say Feser’s series Prisons is typically German, because I don’t know what that means. Instead, I will say it is typically Northern European. Feser’s photographs embody the spirit of pedantic spatial ordering which I have observed not only in Britain and Germany, but also Austria and the Netherlands.
We don’t know the specific locations of these prisons so we can not know the construction dates. Given the carceral/residential interplay we can say that if Feser’s images aren’t about the zoning of space, they are about a time before zoning dominated civic-planning.
“When I photographed the prisons I was interested in how these prison walls are embedded in the neighbourhoods,” said Ms. Feser via email. “How the neighbours live with the walls. There are different strategies. Its a little bit complicated for me to write about it in English …” Feser’s images do the talking.
Feser’s world is one of silence, order and manicured nature. Her images evince a harmony between the prison, its neighbours and vice-versa. We witness no trauma here.
Feser has obviously decided to omit humans from her compositions. The neighbourhoods are well tended and so presumably inhabited. One presumes the neighbourhoods are occupied daily, and yet we see no cars in driveways nor bikes on the street. Feser almost suspends belief. Are these actual places? Is this a toy-town?
Why does Feser rely on manicured topiary and brick pointing of the absent inhabitants to illustrate the “different strategies”? Is Feser suggesting a common psychology between prisoners and residents?
Have the neighbours adopted psychologies of seclusion and discipline as exist in the prison next door? Can penal strategies of control transfer by osmosis through prison walls and throughout a community? Or are certain personalities attracted to these new build estates? Are a portion of these homes reserved for prison staff? Or has Feser’s clever framing and omissions just led the viewer along these lines of inquiry?
Many would think in this peculiar carceral/residential inter-relationship the prison dominates, overbears. I doubt it. I contend those who live in such locales influence the institution also. The two agents in this relationship aren’t separate; they are drawn to one another and they overlap.
Feser uses visual devices to point toward this overlap. Angles of the oblique walls, dead ends, tended verges and brown-toned brickwork repeat through the series; sometimes these elements are part of prison fabric, sometimes part of a house.
There exists no hierarchical coda in Feser’s images as all the surfaces are equal. One has to pay attention to figure out which architecture is carceral, and which is not. Even the barbed wire doesn’t confirm it totally as (in England at least) one commonly sees barbed wire and glass shards lining the walls of merchant-yards and back alleys.
Feser’s photographs cradle a palette of grey concrete & skies; dense greens and the browns of brick & mortar. This is Germany, but it could as easily be Lancashire housing estates, Merseyside new towns or the reclaimed industrial sites of Scottish cities.
So how about it America? You are the land of the suburb and subdivision. You may not be familiar with a socio-spatial history that favours the awkward in-fill of urban and semi-urban space over the encroachment on to undeveloped land. It’s alright. Prisons needn’t be invisible and we needn’t be afraid. Locks and keys work as well on your street as they do in up-state, high-pain, back-water seclusion!
The location of prisons matters because when prisoners are sent to facilities on the other side of the state, families are likely to visit less. The commitment of time and money required to make such a lengthy trip usually precludes the poorest families from the essential and simple act of visiting a loved one. Research has shown the largest single factor in a prisoner successfully reentering society and not re-offending is the maintenance of family ties and the continued support it provides.
All images © Christiane Feser. Used with permission.