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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
Lloyd DeGrane‘s work is long-term and it is honest. DeGrane would like to see more transparency surrounding American correctional facilities, “I think people, taxpayers should see what they’re getting for their money”. I came across DeGrane in James R Hugunin’s 1996 curated exhibit Discipline and Photograph.
DeGrane carried out his Prison series between 1990 and 2001, when he photographed within the state maximum security Stateville Correctional Center, Illinois and Cook County Jail in Chicago. The three photos featured here each depict scenes at Stateville.
DeGrane took the time to discuss the role of photography in sites of incarceration, a photographer’s best approach, the names and labels given to him by inmates and images of the spaces between cells.
Did you await each photo opportunity? While working, were you alone or accompanied on the corridor or wing?
“I was usually escorted by a counselor – an unassuming, non-threatening person. Sometimes I’d go into a unit and walk around by myself, being careful not to get out of the view of a correctional officer. Stateville is a maximum security facility so some of the inmates were violent offenders. I talked to the inmates directly, sometimes going into their cells. For the most part the officials let me browse freely and talk to any inmates I wanted. Things, to a point, were pretty transparent. When I came into a unit someone would usually yell out my arrival”.
What is happening in the Isolation Unit photograph?
“This is the isolation unit – I called it ‘the jail within the prison’. Inmates who committed an offense in the prison were taken out of the general population and held there 23 hours a day with one hour for outside exercise. That [the display of legs and arms] was the first reaction to me being on the wing”.
“The inmates, for reasons unknown to me, thought I was a state official of some kind. But, after I got to talking with a few people independently I was able to photograph several inmates with no problems, with the exception of one inmate who would try to throw excrement at the guards”.
Explain the situation here, with the trash and food on the floor.
“That was taken in 1993. Inmates were ending a five day lock-down and totally disgusted by the lunch served (cold baloney sandwiches every day). So, they threw the servings out of their cells onto the floor. The floor of the wing is commonly known as ‘the flag’.”
“Guards eventually had to clean it up. I noticed when I came back the next week that the roach problem was severe. I had to tuck my pant legs into my socks so the roaches wouldn’t crawl up my legs”.
The interaction between the guard and inmate in the protective custody unit is fascinating – it melds contortion, humanity, routine and unlikely types for the prison environment.
“The inmate was in the protective custody unit. That’s a pregnant guard that’s looking at him. He didn’t have a mirror so the only way he could see what was happening outside his cell was to stick his head out of the food tray slot.”
Did the subjects of your images, specifically inmates, see the photographs after they were produced/exhibited?
“I always made a small photo for the inmates. Sometimes they got them and sometimes the warden or captain (for reasons I do not know) didn’t get around to giving them the photo. But, I was able to get a little deeper into the lives of the inmates that received photos.”
How do you work?
“The images are made slowly and carefully. No surprises. Observation and discussion with the inmates and then photos. That was my modus operandi. It’s like going into someone’s home, they know you’re there! So, it’s best to be respectfully curious. Some inmates wanted nothing to do with me (I think they had committed other crimes on the outside and didn’t want to be recognized). Other inmates didn’t mind at all. I talked with people all the time. I think taxpayers should see what they’re getting for their money. Transparency is key. But, many prison officials believe the opposite and in their facility, they rule!
Final thoughts on the prison system?
Prisons – and not correctional facilities (as the State of Illinois has named their institutions) – the concrete human warehouses behind razor wire are just that! Buildings that confine people. It’s an existential experience in a world that is both separate from America but a big part of the American economy. One sees homemade signs along Interstate 55 that read, ‘Don’t shut our prison down’, ‘Save the prison, Save our jobs’ outside Pontiac, Illinois, home to another maximum security facility that may close because of state budget cuts.
Don’t get me wrong though, some people belong in prison. I met many men who raped innocent women, killed children, beat other men to death for a few dollars and some who murdered their cellmates. I was glad that I didn’t meet them in a dark alley in Chicago. But, one thought that always went through my mind was, most of these people will get out some day. Will they change for the better or just be better criminals?
You kept an index of how the prisoners referred to you. It’s length, variety and contradictions reflect well the complexity of social experience within correctional facilities. Can you remind us of the index?
This is my index of how inmates referred to me. Picture Man, White man, The Man White Mother Fuckin’ Press Man, Black Gang Lover, Spic Gang Lover, White Prisoner Lover, Straight Dude Looking for Something – Policeman, The Photo Man, The European, The Springfield Connection, A Fair Man, An O.K. Photographer, An Artist, Homes, Homey, Fuckin’ Photographer, Homo, Fuckin’ Camera Man, The Camera Man, Inmate Lover, The Police, Friend and Cute Mother Fucker (The label given to me by Richard Speck).