I’ve been stumbling across some mind-blowingly novel prison photographs recently. This incredible Facebook Album by Steve Milanowski fell on my radar and the colour is something special.
Milanowski photographed at three prisons during the eighties — Walpole, Massachusetts (1981, 1982); Ionia, Michigan (1984); and Jackson, Michigan (1985). In 2012, he began shooting the outside of Waupun Correctional Institution in Wisconsin. In each case, Milanowski was working independently and not on assignment.
As colourful and characterful as these images are it’s worth bearing in mind that prisons of this era were beginning to creek. Dangerous overcrowding existed in Michigan prisons in the early eighties, and Jackson in particularly was renowned as a tough prison with gangs and enforced convict codes.
These prison photographs have, up to this point, only had limited circulation. Some feature in Milanowski’s book Duplicity, others on his website. A few photographs have appeared in museum exhibitions around the country. I wanted to know more, so I dropped Steve a line with some questions.
Scroll down for our Q&A.
Prison Photography (PP): Where did your interest in prisons come from?
Steve Milanowski (SM): It dates back to my childhood: my dad was an attorney in Michigan and very occasionally had clients that he had to visit in prison. When I was in 5th and 6th grades, maybe twice, he took me along (taking me out of classes) on the prison/client visits. For a 6th grader, these visits were absolutely unforgettable. Indelible. This was an environment that was utterly foreign to my existence. It was almost as if my eyes weren’t fast enough to take it all in. To a kid, nothing in the world looks like a prison.
PP: What was the purpose of your visits the these four prisons?
SM: Simply to make new photographs in places that have mostly been, in the past, photographed with visual cliche and with the perceived grittiness of black and white films.
PP: How did you gain access?
SM: My first permission was with Walpole in Massachusetts. I sent a letter to the Walpole warden; it was written on MIT stationary. I was a graduate student at MIT and I think the name helped in getting me access. I found that once one gets permission to photograph in a prison — that permission leads to more permission. I used the Walpole photographs in gaining access to Jackson and Ionia prisons. No negotiations were needed; they all gave me fairly easy access. Initially, I only asked for single-visit access.
PP: How would you characterize the atmosphere of the prisons?
SM: The atmosphere was taut, tough and difficult at most turns — very regimented and formal. In some instances, I was assigned a female escort which made my shooting more difficult because the inmates had no hesitation in shouting out awful, obscene things; and, the female escorts seemed bent on proving that they were not bothered or intimidated by these nasty shout-outs.
PP: How does this body of work relate to your other projects and your philosophy/approach to photography generally?
SM: I consider my work to be the work of a portraitist. My prison portraits are stylistically in line with the portrait work that I pursue “out in public” at public demonstrations, holiday parades, festivals, fairs, and competitions.
PP: What were the reactions of the staff to your photography?
SM: I never really sought out their reactions. My photographs did seem to always successfully get me more access though.
PP: What were the reactions of the prisoners?
SM: Never really got reactions, per se. But with each portrait, I offered a free print if they wrote me a request and visually described themselves; some inmates wrote back and praised the images. Some seemed to want to start a pen pal relationship, just because, it seemed, some inmates had few contacts with the outside world.
PP: What is your personal opinion of prisons? Have they changed since you visited in the eighties?
SM: Prisons, then and now, in America, seem to continue to be warehouses; I think most Americans are aware of the fact that we, as a nation, have one of the largest prison populations in the world — and that we incarcerate at a level that far exceeds almost all other nations.
Have prisons changed? One change I’ve noticed with great concern is the concept and use of Supermax prisons which seems to be uniquely American. With older prisons as well as Supermax prisons, we seem to never be willing to spend much money on reducing recidivism.
The conservative right loves to convey the idea that they are tough on crime — tough prisons, tough sentencing, and the idea of “throw away the key.” So, our prison populations grow, and we build more prisons than any other nation. We’ve seen the expansion. And the Democrats? They do their best to avoid being tagged as “soft on crime.”
PP: What are Americans’ feeling toward crime and punishment?
SM: Americans very much ignore prisons and prison life — unless they live near a prison where the prison is the source of some level of local employment. Americans seem to only take notice of prisons when there is a problem, an escape, a prison disturbance (that receives national media attention), or when there is some breakdown in the system.
There seems to be a real void in political or community leadership especially in the realm of education as a path to reducing crime and reducing prison populations; the idea gets plenty of lip service.
PP: What role has photography in telling publics about prisons? Is it an effective tool?
SM: I think photography can help — and be an effective tool in informing the public about prisons and who inhabits American prisons; but, I’m not sure at all that our society wants to look at prisons and prison life … its too easy to ignore.
PP: What camera and film did you use?
SM: 4×5 Linhof and 4×5 Kodak and Fuji color negative. Sometimes a Pentax 6×7 with Fuji and Kodak color negative film. And, always combining flash with ambient light.
PP: The color you introduce is unusual for prison photographs. From looking at your other work, it is clear you revel in colour portraits. Were you aware that you were making unique images; splashing color all over these darkened corners of US society?
SM: Unique images? Well you have hit on something that was a primary intention: I wanted to make photographs that told you something new. Pictures you hadn’t seen before. Prison photography is rife with cliches. I thought if I were given access to prisons, I’d make different photographs. I was not arrogant about this — just determined to make images that had not been seen before.
I was determined, self-directed and wanted to get as many photographs as I could accomplish in, typically, a 1 to 2 hour visit. I limited my talk and conversations — I was on a mission.
Steve Milanowski is a photographer and, with Bob Tarte, co-author of Duplicity, a monograph of his own portraits. Milanowski earned his BFA from The Cranbrook Academy of Art and his MS from The Creative Photography Laboratory at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. His photographs are part of the permanent collections of The Museum of Modern Art, National Gallery of Art, The Houstin Museum of Fine Arts, The High Museum of Art, and The Polaroid Collection and numerous public collections. MoMA published his work in Celebrations and Animals; his work was also included in MoMA’s recent survey of late 20th century photography in the newly reinstalled Edward Steichen galleries.