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Hospital lobby. © Kim Rushing

Long before I started writing about prison imagery and before I even set foot in the United States, photographer and educator Kim Rushing was making images of the men at the infamous Parchman Farm, known officially as Mississippi State Penitentiary. Rushing made these photographs and others over a four year period (1994-1998). They recently been published by University Press of Mississippi as a book simply titled Parchman.

After a first glance at the photographs I was surprised to hear they were made in the nineties. Many images appear as if they could have been captured in much earlier decades, but such is the nature of prisons which either change at glacial pace or remain in a temporal stasis–uniforms replace identifiable fashion; hardware is from eras past; conditions can appear mid-century; and the vats of the kitchens and gas chamber seem permanently footed to the concrete foundations.

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Spaghetti, central kitchen. © Kim Rushing

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Gas chamber. © Kim Rushing

Rushing’s photographs are a welcome view to a past era and a brief step back in time. My overriding takeaway from the project is that time, as in all prisons, operates by its own rules.

Rushing’s contribution to the emerging visual history of American incarceration is valuable, not least because it contains some hope. Whether the absence of violence is a fair reflection of Parchman would be a worthwhile discussion but for broader research some other time. Take the images at their face value and we can identify other prevalent characteristics of prisons, namely boredom, containment, some programming, and certain longing. (I’d hazard to guess the programming such as gardening have been scaled back.)

To insist that an almost predictable perspective on prisons exists in Rushing’s work is borne out in close comparison of the work of other photographers. Rushing’s portraits are very similar to those of Adam Shemper’s made at Angola Prison, Louisiana in 2000.

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Cornelius Carroll © Kim Rushing

There are also quiet echoes of David Simonton’s 4×5 photographs of Polk Youth Facility in North Carolina made in the nineties. Except in Rushing’s images prisoners inhabit the scratched, peeling interiors. Interestingly, both bodies of work remind me of Roger Ballen‘s dark worlds, but that might be a leap too far given the specific psychological manipulations by Ballen in his native South Africa.

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Gregory Applewhite at window © Kim Rushing

In terms of touchstone and stated portraiture projects, I see fair comparisons with the incredible work of Ruth Morgan in San Quentin Prison, California made in the early eighties.

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Billy Wallace. © Kim Rushing

And in terms of predictable moments, I cannot help but think of Ken Light’s portrait of Cameron Todd Willingham in Texas from 1994, when I view Rushing’s photo of Kevin Pack (below).

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Kevin Pack watching TV. © Kim Rushing

In the book Parchman, alongside Rushing’s images are the handwritten letters of 18 prisoners–ranging in custody level from trustee to death row–who volunteered to be photographed. “What does it feel like when two people from completely different worlds look at each other over the top of a camera?” asks University Press of Mississippi. In this case, I’d argue, the successful insertion of humanity into an institution that has historically crushed the spirits of those inside. Clearly adept in his art, Rushing has made a stark and sometimes touching portrait of an invisible population.

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Feeding the spider © Kim Rushing

Parchman (cloth-bound; 10 x 10 inches; 208 pages; 125 B&W photographs) is now available for $50.00 from University Press of Mississippi.

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