It is every artist, collector or photographer’s dream; the discovery of an archive of thousands of negatives. For artist and professor Nigel Poor, it became a reality. In late 2012, she was making a routine visit to Lt. Sam Robinson’s office in San Quentin State Prison. She’d just finished teaching her class in photo-history and collaborating on image interpretation project with her incarcerated students. Knowing her life in the medium, Robinson pulled out a bankers box.
“He lifted the lid,” recalls Poor. “Inside were hundreds of yellow envelopes that I recognized instantly as those which hold 4×5 photo negatives.”
Poor’s heart “exploded.” More than three years on, Poor has only just finished going through all the negs: she estimates there’s more than 10,000.
In the weeks, after the discovery, Poor took some negatives and scanned them. She showed the prints to Robinson to prove what she could do and he gave her permission to take the entire box. So far, she’s scanned about 600 of the 4×5 negs. There’s four or five other boxes still to scan and categorize.
I anticipate that there’s hundreds of similar archives gathering dust inside cupboards and administration buildings in prisons across the United States. Kudos to the San Quentin authority for empowering Poor to share the finds with a wider public. The archive ultimately belongs, in my opinion in a California State-run Museum.
The other wonderful thing that has come out of this is that Poor is using the images as teaching aids. Just as she had done with iconic images from art history (see the William Eggleston, Lee Friedlander and David Hilliard images above), Poor asked her students to deconstruct, examine and interpret the newly-found images from the San Quentin archive. After she had scanned and printed them on card-stock with large white borders, Poor gave them to the men to interpret.
She has given the prisoners first go at interpreting San Quentin’s history. They are writing the latest stories of a very-storied institution.
Read my article about the archive discovery Rarely Seen Images of the Real San Quentin on the Marshall Project. The article was also cross-posted to The Atlantic — Unearthing San Quentin: Resurrected photos capture moments of daily life at the California prison.