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Brett Leigh Dicks is an Australian photographer based in Santa Barbara, California. He’s made many images in abandoned prisons.

It’s always difficult for me to draw meaning from photographs of disused prisons — I’ve challenged Lee Saloutos directly about the utility of his photographs; I am skeptical about the usefulness of Margaret Stratton’s work; and I’m confused by Thomas Roma’s images of Holmesburg Prison. At least in the photographs of David Simonton the closure of the Polk Juvenile Detention Center was recent and, as a local, Simonton could couch the work in a political context.

So, what to do with Leigh Dicks’ work? Well, here I’ve brought together half a dozen of my preferred images. They all depict written, painted words or images that are either instructive or rebellious, official or graffiti, in support of the prison rules (signs) or counter to prison reality (murals of wilderness/freedom). These texts and images are common in nearly all prisons (all the ones I’ve ever visited). To the uninitiated eye they are confusing and incongruous. After a short space of time they almost cease to be visible.

These wall paintings, administrative orders and motivational statements I’ve identified in Angola Prison, in Beth Nakamura’s photography in Oregon’s prisons, in Alyse Emdur’s collected portraits, and in Geoffrey James’ work in Kingston Penitentiary in Canada, among other places.

There’s a lot more going on in these deliberated 2D interventions on prison walls than we might initially see or comprehend. That’s a longer discussion for another time. I just wanted to drill down on this type of content within Leigh Dicks’ work.

Leigh Dicks says in his bio that he seeks to “investigate the landscape and the fragile ties that it shares with human history.” That includes the penal landscape, the invisible territories of power within and, yes also, the fake painted landscapes on prisons’ interior walls.

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