Gas Chamber With Two Chairs, Missouri State Penitentiary, #5 (2012)
Fine art photographer Lee Saloutos makes images of abandoned structures. One of his projects looks at mid-century mining structures, another project is photographs made in abandoned prisons. In terms of his aesthetic approach the two are related. Generally, I am not interested in photographs of defunct prisons, but in Saloutos’ artist statement there is an an acknowledged discord between the look of prisons (beautiful decay) and the history of prisons (brutality).
“These prisons often have a long and frightening history. The design and function of these places of confinement and punishment can be jarring, utilitarian, and brutal,” says Saloutos in his artist statement.
Saloutos has photographed in Wyoming, New Mexico, Missouri, Ohio, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and Alcatraz. He’s got his sights on a prison in Tennessee.
His statement continues, “It is easy to see and feel the anger, resignation, detachment, and reaching for meaning that many of the prisoners must have felt while confined. But the light inside can be open and subtle and inviting. When empty the interiors are full of eerie and beautiful light and quiet. The contrast between these two elements is fascinating and difficult. It is possible to feel deeply unsettled and serene at almost the same moment. My goal is to convey this contrast and perhaps attract and repel the viewer at the same time.”
That’s a big ask for images alone.
I thought perhaps Saloutos and I could wrestle with this tension between punishment of the past and the punishment of today. I always want to scrutinize images to see how they can inform us in urgent conversations about current conditions, laws and power in prisons.
Scroll down for our conversation.
Cells, Housing Unit 1, Missouri State Penitentiary, #4 (AA Mural) (2012)
Q & A
Prison Photography (PP): Your images, stand alone, are objects of beauty. They’re fine art prints. You aesthetisize decay but judging by your statement you are aware of the dangers of over simplifying things. Robert Adams said that if a photographs needs a caption it has failed. I don’t agree. Images are manufactured and distributed because of power and interests. Context is very important. Captions are part of that.
Lee Saloutos (LS): I disagree with Adams as well. Words build on images and the image gives words deeper meaning. Let me work on an initial explanation for the images.
First, as context, the mines project. It is all about the very large mills and associated structures that can be found in remote locations in the Great Basin. There are many abandoned mines in Nevada, but they are disappearing for many reasons, including natural decay, private reclamation, Bureau of Land Management (BLM) reclamation, and bootleg scrappers who show up at a remote site with whatever equipment they feel they need, tear down the structures, and haul them off for scrap.
The mines project is mostly about the consumption and abandonment of the West, a topic that others have explored as well. My visual interest in both mines and prisons is the same — the light in these spaces can be sublime. The silence, the scale and the sense of aloneness of the interiors is remarkable. These spaces are often not seen.
The prisons project is more complex. It has taken a long while for me to begin to figure out my attraction. I enjoy the process of finding, exploring and accessing the old prisons. I’m attracted by their contradictions — their frightening, complex histories as compared to their current silence and beauty. Many times I have sat in a quiet common space in a prison, just watching the light move across the room. And then I’m jolted out of this by the sudden realization that I am in a prison.
No one wanted to be here. It was not beautiful or serene when it was in operation. It was probably a horrific place full of physical and psychological violence. I want viewers to see and to feel this contradiction.
PP: Is there a political edge in your work?
LS: I don’t have a political agenda that I am trying to advance. But are the pictures political? I think they are, but it is subtle. I want the viewer to be drawn in by the light and color and then have the same realization I do.
PP: Would you say that your images work better as art than they do an entry point to political debate?
LS: They work better as fine art documentary than they do as an entry point for political debate, although I know from experience showing them that they do both. I definitely don’t want to be making “ruin porn”, although I don’t know exactly how to define the term and I dislike the it for reasons I can’t really grab onto.
Sun Room, Wyoming Frontier Prison (2007)
Psychiatric Ward, Penitentiary New Mexico, Santa Fe, NM, #3 (2009)
PP: Over what time span have you shot in prisons?
LS: Since 2005.
PP: Which prisons have you visited?
LS: The first one I shot was the Wyoming Frontier Prison in Rawlins. Later, the Penitentiary of New Mexico near Santa Fe; the old Missouri State Penitentiary in Jefferson City; Mansfield Reformatory in Mansfield, Ohio; West Virginia Penitentiary, Moundsville, West Virginia; and Alcatraz. I am working on Holmesburg Prison in Philadelphia, and I am working on plans to shoot inside Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary in Tennessee.
There are many others I am considering or working on. I usually want to be in these places for 2-3 days, so scheduling that kind of time can be difficult. I was in the Penitentiary of New Mexico for 5-6 hours for 5 straight days.
PP: Any surprises?
LS: A gas chamber in Missouri with two seats. Rooms piled to the ceiling with abandoned psychological records. Axe marks on the concrete floor of the New Mexico Penitentiary.
PP: I wonder if those axe marks were from the 1980 riot?
LS: Yes, they are, and they are very visible. There are also torch marks on the floor in one place where an prisoner or guard (I don’t remember) was killed with a cutting torch. Horrific. New Mexico Penitentiary was really raw. The state still owned it but was basically doing nothing but keeping the rain out and the chain link fence locked.
Alcatraz was a disappointment; I knew it would be, but I went anyway. The National Park Service (NPS) has completely tamed the site. I’ve been to many places that have been turned into tourist attractions, and they are a complete turnoff to me. I want to be worried about lead based paint dust and asbestos and terrible stairs and tons of pigeon shit.
Isolation Block, Mansfield State Reformatory, Mansfield, OH, #11 (2011)
PP: How do you find the abandoned prisons?
LS: Google can work. Search “abandoned prison” and “closed prison.” But, you eventually run into the same sites over and over. I look at states’ Department of Corrections websites, and see if I can tell what is operating and what is not. This is time consuming but yields interesting results.
I go to state film commission websites, and talk to their people on the phone. Quite often unused prisons and jails are available to rent as locations.
I also look at other photographer’s work, at other photography websites, urban exploration websites. Once I make contact with a site I’ll ask them what else they know about.
Cells, Housing Unit 3, Missouri State Penitentiary, #8 (2012)
PP: How do you get access?
LS: Cities and states like to hide prisons, literally and figuratively. They don’t advertise them when open, and they don’t talk about them when closed. In today’s world, there can be exceptions – the prison industrial complex is a big source of jobs in rural communities, and sometimes closed prisons become tourist attractions. They often seem to be both a source of pride and at the same time almost embarrassing to a host community. It can be strange.
Getting permission to enter and photograph is another matter. Sometimes there is a caretaker. Sometimes part of the facility is open for tours. Sometimes you simply have to find the right person in the city or state that can give you permission. I hear “No” a lot! One of the more interesting places that has turned me down is Brushy Mountain, Tennessee. They have said no, but I will keep at it. Things change, policies change, people come and go.
PP: Why does Brushy Mountain interest you?
LS: It’s another “inaccessible” location. No public tours. Because it is “inaccessible” that means it is in whatever shut down condition the state left it in — it has not been sanitized in any way for even limited public consumption.
Gas Chamber, Wyoming Frontier Prison, #2 (2007)
PP: You photograph old death penalty chambers. What do you say about those?
LS: I am not trying to say anything explicitly about the death penalty. I’ll show you the places where we have managed and executed the condemned, but I don’t feel I have to explicitly form an argument against the process. My personal belief is that the death penalty is both immoral and impractical.
PP: Why immoral and impractical?
LS: Because of the “false positive” problem. Unless there is some way of executing only those that are guilty of heinous crimes there will be executions of the innocent. This is intolerable. To me the execution of one single innocent man or woman invalidates the entire process. You can’t get them back. If you wrongly convict someone and send them away for life you can at least free them and attempt to make amends somehow.
I don’t think any prosecutor could honestly ever say, “I guarantee that we have never wrongly convicted someone.” They’d have to be either dishonest or ignorant. All processes have a statistical nature to them. Errors occur. In the criminal justice system there are dozens or hundreds of people involved in every case. Not all of them have pure motives. Some of them have very impure motives.
The problem with arguing against the death penalty with statistics and the false positive argument is always anecdotes on the other side. “Charles Manson deserves to die.” That will resonate with far more people than “One in a 100 executions of some ‘nobody’ in Texas is in error.”
Americans are not fluent with statistics and they are fed a steady diet of horrific crime by television featuring very scary criminals.
It’s immoral simply because I believe the state should not be taking lives, no matter. Life imprisonment.
It’s impractical because almost everywhere (except Texas, it seems) carrying out the death penalty is a drawn out, expensive, and degrading (for all) process. But I don’t like making this argument because it implies that if things were sped up the death penalty would be a better idea. It wouldn’t, and it isn’t.
Death Row Cell Block, Penitentiary New Mexico, Santa Fe, NM, #2 (2009)
PP: Do you think your audiences and buyers know about the disaster that is mass incarceration in the U.S.? Does it effect peoples response to your photography?
LS: I don’t think so, although that may be changing. I don’t think many people know the statistics of incarceration, and even if they do most will think “they deserve it.” We’ve been propagandized by the free enterprise and anti-government zealots to believe that privatizing anything is an unconditional good. Few realize that creating a profit motive for having bodies behind bars creates a special interest that is going to want a continuous and even increasing supply of “raw material”.
The stock of any company rises because the market anticipates growth. The Prison Industrial Complex (PIC) can grow by taking over more and more of the prison system, but then when it has taken over the entire system, the only way to get growth is to make more and more things illegal so you can have more people incarcerated. Creating a profit incentive in the prison world is morally wrong. If the state wants to make something illegal, the state should deal with the entire problem and not bid out prison contracts.
Hiding all of these prisons in out-of-the-way rural places is a good strategy for the PIC. They can bring jobs to depressed rural areas but more importantly they allow the agencies that are imprisoning all these people to hide them away from the rest of the citizenry.
The level of knowledge people have about the PIC is a good question. I guess that knowledge is limited. Crime is bad; privatization is good. So the PIC must be really good! This is an oversimplification, but there is some truth to it.
TB Ward, Mansfield State Reformatory, Mansfield, OH, #4 (2011)
PP: Do you think anyone would hang one of your prints next to a print of a modern prison’s interior occupied by men or women?
LS: I have not given it consideration. This body of work is pretty “inaccessible” as they say in the art world, meaning that people might enjoy being confronted with it in a gallery or museum, but they probably won’t take it home and put it in their living room or bedroom.
Maybe there are a few people that would hang the two types of images together. If those people exist I would love to talk to them!
Modern prisons have an entirely different aesthetic to them – they are designed with two goals in mind only, highest possible security and lowest possible cost. So you get stark, minimalist buildings that could be high schools, or shopping malls, or office space, but with razor wire and guard towers and no windows.
PP: Thanks, Lee.
LS: Thank you, Pete.