In 2005, Powerhouse Books published Thomas Roma‘s book In Prison Air: The Cells of Holmesburg Prison.

Arguably, the introduction by John Szarkowski is more interesting – or at least more complex – than Roma’s images. Szarkowski tackles head on the common question that looms over photographic studies of prisons:

“Roma’s book is in fact an odd and possibly perverse work, designed for who knows what audience. There are probably a few aging sociologists, still completing their works on what prisoners write on their walls, to whom the book might be useful (although it might be faulted on the basis of a lack of systematic rigor), and there might be another small but dedicated segment of our population that is interested in thinking about what life in prison might be like – not in terms of dramatic narrative, as with Cagney, Bogart, Robinson, etc., but rather (I am tempted to say) in terms of the aesthetics of incarceration.”

“But that is only a quick, superficial and comfortably middle-class response; and on second thought it is surely wrong.”

“Perhaps it might be more useful to ask why a photographer of high talent and conspicuous achievement might decide to make a book of photographs looking into empty prison cells. This is the same photographer who gave us the great, free-spirited dogs of Brooklyn, and the great open pastures of Sicily; and it is not unreasonable to ask why a photographer dedicated (or half-dedicated) to the cause of freedom should make this extended, serious, hermetic effort to produce a book of photographs concerning the very essence of subjugation.”

Szarkwoski then meanders through speculations about the photographs as a warning – even preparation – for forthcoming and unknown (possibly increasing) uses of incarceration:

“We might therefore, to be on the safe side, consider whether their evidence might help us prepare us for our possible future.”

To hammer the point home, Szarkowski lists common human preoccupations:

“According to their wall drawings and other graffiti, it would seem that the principled interests of Roma’s inmates were God, sex, time and to a lesser degree, art, the last being perhaps merely a method of dealing with the first three. These issues have been historically important to men in and out of prison.”

Szarkowski flourishes the introduction with reference to Conrad and Kafka and ends on an unfinished train of thought about medical experimentation on humans. Relevant, but not finished.

All in all, it is a bizarre essay. Szarkowski seems to grapple with the fact he has no connection to the content nor anchor with which to investigate and make sense of Roma’s work. But maybe that is the point he’s [un]intentionally making about photographs of prisons and of places one’s never been?

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