David Simonton contacted me and shared his long term project at the former Polk Youth Center in Raleigh. After thoughtful discussions David and I decided upon a pairing of articles.
In this post, Part One, David talks about the background to the project and his objectives in the work.
I also chose a selection of David’s prints to showcase and offer comment. At the bottom is a thumbnail-pop-out-gallery with all the pictures in one place.
…and, in a few weeks, Part Two will dissect the atypically rich and varied visual-history of the Polk Youth Center.
David Simonton’s Commentary (PP’s Subheaders)
Photographing Disused Architectures of Citizen Management
In the late-1980’s I was one of a number of photographers working on Ellis Island, the former Immigration Station in New York Harbor, documenting the progress of the restoration of the facility (reopened to the public in 1990).
The project was called “The Ellis Island Project: Documentation/Interpretation.” I was living in New Jersey at the time, and traveled to the island to photograph twice a week for nine months. During this period I was also pursuing my personal projects.
In 1989, I moved to North Carolina
The “Old” Polk Youth Center/Prison, Raleigh which has a long and storied history, closed in 1997 when a modern facility (which the “Old Polk,” most assuredly, was NOT) opened in Butner, NC. The inmates were transferred to Butner in November of that same year.
Living nearby, I could hardly resist the opportunity to photograph there. So before any “No Trespassing” signs were posted, I went and photographed the site. The doors (cell doors, some of them) to many of the buildings were wide open!
“Old” Polk Youth Center – a euphemism if ever there was one – was located on land directly adjacent to the North Carolina Museum of Art in West Raleigh, near the State Fairgrounds.
The prison buildings were razed in 2003. But before that occurred, the prison was essentially abandoned until the land (along with the buildings on it) was transferred to the museum.
During the mid-nineties, I exhibited my personal, interpretive work from Ellis Island – 90 images – at a gallery in Raleigh. Huston Paschal, a curator at the state art museum, attended the exhibition.
Unaware that I had already photographed there, Huston Paschal invited me to document the site, which was now in the museum’s hands. In late-2000 the invitation was formalized with a commission. I continued working on the project (even after the commission had lapsed) until the buildings came down, the ground leveled and grass planted.
My involvement was always with an empty site, when the prison was closed and inmates transferred. I photographed a long-abandoned facility: empty buildings, empty cellblocks and overgrown grounds.
Simonton: “Art for art’s sake”
As an art photographer (an unfortunate, nearly pretentious-sounding term, even if it’s the category my work falls into), my goal is to make interesting pictures; interesting in-and-of themselves, so that THEY are worth looking at, repeatedly.
What’s depicted is not unimportant, but it’s of secondary importance; this is my approach to my own picture making. The fact that my “subject” was a prison is happenstance – I photograph all kinds of abandoned structures. I also photograph the smalls town North Carolina (day and night) and photograph landscapes. An interesting photograph is always my intent, even when what it depicts is not itself inherently interesting … or beautiful.
Art and Documentary converge.
The Polk project was a “documentary” project, but not in the strict sense of it being wholly objective. My pictures describe the place I saw, and, if not the place I “saw”, then the place I thought and felt.
The project is not a comprehensive cataloging of the site either; rather, the pictures reflect my response to it during the passage of several years. They inform history by showing the place as it was in those waning years, after being – at long last – set aside as a relic; finally to be torn down and planted over and – with still more time – forgotten.
Polk Youth Center was located in a heavily populated area, which was not the case when it was built. Improvements were rarely made because, why spend money on any improvements if the facility was about to be moved or closed? – as were the recurrent promises for decades.
I was not aware of the prison or the prison sites history until after I had completed my work; which may be just as well, since it was difficult enough to find beauty in such a physically “unbeautiful” place.
Had I been mindful of the ugly history of the old Polk Youth Center – riots, rape and other forms of violence in its final years, – I may have had a harder time photographing.
Prison Photography’s Commentary
Simonton’s three years at Polk yielded a varied portfolio. In editing the selection (from 100+ images to these 16) images distinguished themselves for very different reasons. If the lens wasn’t pointed at something crumbling, it was pointing at something overgrown and grown over.
Some images (Steep Steps) are flattened and exposed matter-of-factly, whereas others (Laundry Bin) luxuriate in silvery sheen.
I choose one pairing here of the same view in different season; Simonton took many pairings so to secure the evidence of time in his series. Apparently, the chimney was a signature of Raleigh’s landscape.
It is in the different states of dilapidation that one finds a visual allusions. Simonton’s photograph of the teeth counterpoise the dental ephemera in Edmund Clark’s photography of a functioning geriatric UK prison wing. When given the opportunity, Simonton ties the fragility of the body to the decay of the site.
Other recalls. Simonton’s cavernous grimed up cells, the expired bird, the textural friction between hard concrete and friable life are not too dissimilar to Roger Ballen. The reflected dormitory of cacophonous bed frames is a Moholy-Nagy-informed dark-fantasia march of welded steel.
Only a few of Simonton’s images describe the site as one of incarceration. Few of the normal visual clues are available; no visible bars on windows, no holding cages. This could as easily be a disused YMCA or summer camp.
For Prison Photography, the real interest in Simonton’s work comes when it is positioned in a wider context of the site. David provided me with background info and some press clippings which whetted my appetite. Further research was rewarded with an unusual series of photographic manoeuvers sequentially on this site through its various guises. All of this I will cover in Part Two.
Closure & Erasure
The photo of the evacuation plan below touches upon that procedural rigour that has cycled at the site of the former Youth Polk Center. The image at the very bottom (as well as being Simonton’s favourite) is a fine accompaniment to the evacuation plan.
Both images bear evidence of water blistering, bubbling and staining its way through materials. These evocations are “Art for Art’s sake” but they are also poetic closures, historical records and proof that in the absence of human interference erasure sets in rapidly.
David Simonton has been a photographer for 40 years and has been photographing North Carolina for the past 20 years. An adjunct instructor of photography at Peace College in Raleigh, David often chooses to focus on the more rural parts of the state. His series “Photographs from North Carolina” features black-and-white photographs from the 345 North Carolina towns he has visited. He has completed commissions for the North Carolina Museum of Art and the United Arts Council of Raleigh and Wake County. He has had work in solo and group exhibitions throughout the United States, and his photographs are in the permanent collection of the North Carolina Museum of Art. David was awarded a visual artist fellowship from the North Carolina Arts Council in 2001. (via)
Thank you to David Simonton for reaching out. Thanks for the time spent over questions and for your collaboration. Pleasure working with you.