Robert Walsh contacted me recently to alert me his 2007 project at Delta College, Stockton, with instructor Kirstyn Russell. I asked Mr Walsh to explain the context of the series.
The story is not complicated. I have been a moderately serious photographer since the late 60s, when I got my first real job, working in the camera department of a large discount store. I have kept at it, off and on, for 40 years.
I got a job with the Department of Corrections in 1980 and worked at Deuel Vocational Institution (DVI) for 24 years, retiring as a Lieutenant 4 years ago.
A couple of years after I retired I approached the Warden, who was about to retire himself, and asked for access to shoot a photo essay of the prison.
I promised that I would go to great lengths to ensure that there were no recognizable images of inmates (legal issues) or staff (personal/professional issues) and would give the Department veto authority over any photo with any possible security issues. It worked out, and they had no issues.
I shot about 200 frames of 35mm, 120 and large format B&W negative, and ended up with a collection of 20 prints which I put in the book Images of the Gladiator School, along with a few pages of text. The text is still evolving.
The photos were shot over two days in the fall of 2007. I was trying to convey the visual impact of the institution without showing any people, both for obvious legal reasons and as a technical/artistic “challenge” for lack of a better way of putting it.
Mr Walsh sent me through the series’ twenty images, from which I selected six.
Of the remaining fourteen, two of Mr Walsh’s photographs were of receding cell tiers, so they couldn’t be included by virtue of a pledge. Two more were of receding corridors, so I extended the pledge. Three other prints that stood out were exterior shots of the yards at DVI. They depicted similar spaces to those of elementary schools – I plan to return to these in a later post.
I choose a single photograph for its own reason and five others for shared reasons.
The image of the cell (above) is musty, scuffed and miserable as cell really get. Debris that lurks on the cold surfaces.
Mr Walsh actually provided two prints of the cell image; the other being less textured, darker and crisper. The other image also didn’t exhibit the same surface damage. The reproduction (above) was preferred because of its subtle mood of disintegration.
The remaining five were chosen because they express something of the action of the photographer. Away from the static buildings and fences, Mr Walsh has gone searching for anomalies amid the rigid penitentiary structures. The portrait of the cow is suitably awkward, the disturbed furrows of the field from which the owl flies are repeated in the pock-holes of the target range, repeated in the bullet-holes of the target-paper.
Palm trees. This is the West or Southwest, this is the land of middle distance road signs. This could be the work of John Divola‘s Correctional Officer Alter-Ego.
Mr Walsh challenged himself to “convey the visual impact of the institution” doing so with “no recognizable images of inmates or staff”. Bar two images, his compositions omit the activities of human life. Somehow, these five images specifically, give me the sense of human life recently fled or snuffed out entirely.
Whether Mr Walsh intended it, I find some of these images a little unnerving. The series is entitled Images of the Gladiator School based on DVI’s violent reputation between the 60s and early 80s. The project could as easily be called Ghosts of the Gladiator School.
Thanks to Robert Walsh for his time, words and images.