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‘Chasing the Dragon’ © Robert Saltzman / Juan Archuleta. From the series “La Pinta: Doing Time in Santa Fe”

I’ve heard from a couple of folk that when I started Prison Photography, they laughed at its folly. Not only had a bleeding-heart liberal thug-hugger come along to explain a world no-one cared about to no-one in particular, but silly-little-leftie-me would run out of projects and photographs in no time. Not only had I picked a subject nobody cared for, I’d neglected to do the proper amount of research and maths.

Well, more than eight years later, and I’m still stumbling upon scintillating projects that challenge my ever-evolving timeline of prison-based visual arts. Case in point La Pinta: Doing Time in Santa Fe, a collaboration between Robert Saltzman and the prisoners of New Mexico State Penitentiary, in Santa Fe, NM.

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© Robert Saltzman / Keith Baker. From the series “La Pinta: Doing Time in Santa Fe”

Saltzman first visited the prison in 1982 to visit a friend and thereafter was fascinated by the lives behind the walls. Despite a massive riot less than two years prior, Saltzman convinced the warden to allow him in with his 35mm SLR, three lenses and camera-mounted flash. Saltzman gave assurances he was there as an artist and not as a reporter.

Over 9 months, Saltzman made 500 images on Kodachrome64 film. He picked the 35 strongest portraits but still wasn’t happy. They failed to tell a fraction of the stories or reflect even a small slice of the range of emotions he encountered. So he printed the 35 out and mounted them on white illustration board. He sent them back in, a few at a time, with a request.

“Please use the white space however you want,” Saltzman told Popular Photography in 1985.

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© Robert Saltzman / Jonathan S. Shaw. From the series “La Pinta: Doing Time in Santa Fe”. Screengrab from Google Books scan of an issue of Popular Photography (Vol. 92, No. 3, March 1985, pages 66-69 + 141, ISSN 1542-0337)

Some photographers would be happy to get in and out with some portraits and call it a day. Plaudits to Saltzman that he distanced himself enough to make a hard call about the nature of his pictures. And with it adding more time and uncertainty to the project.

28 total works came back. In the first exhibition of La Pinta: Doing Time in Santa Fe, 11 were shown. Later, 14 were exhibited.

“The drawings and writings, coupled with Saltzman’s portraits, communicate a poignant and often tension-filled commentary on the prison experience,” writes James Hugunin, art historian, expert on prison imagery and curator of a 1996 show Discipline and Photograph which included Saltzman’s work.

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© Robert Saltzman / Ralph K Millam. From the series “La Pinta: Doing Time in Santa Fe”. Screengrab from Google Books scan of an issue of Popular Photography (Vol. 92, No. 3, March 1985, pages 66-69 + 141, ISSN 1542-0337)

This work excites me because it avoids easy categorisation. This type of collaborative work is standard-fare these days with a new generation of practitioners inspired by the social justice priorities of photographers like Wendy Ewald, Anthony Luvera, Eric Gottesman and many more. In the early eighties however, when Saltzman et al. made these, collaboration was considered a bit amateurish. God forbid you allow scrawls upon photographs! Pencil was meant only for contact sheets, editing and for marking crops for the darkroom. Note that among famous photographers Robert Frank made some good scrawls on his stuff in the 70s for himself and for ad campaigns in the 80s and we all know Jim Goldberg’s Rich and Poor (1977-78) was before its time and the high-profile example of a photographer handing over prints for subjects to write upon.

With the exception of Danny Lyon, all the photographers I know that preceded Robert Saltzman in photographing inside US prisons–Steven Malinowski, Gary Walrath, Joshua Freiwald, Sean Kernan, Cornell Capa, Ruth Morgan, Douglas Kent Hall, Taro Yamasaki–were invested in keeping the camera, and thus the message and interpretation, in their own hands. Given the times and the preciousness of access, it makes sense that photographers would internalise society’s general attitude toward them as special messengers. (I should flag here, as I always do, that Ethan Hoffman’s work and book Concrete Mama was exemplary of this time in terms of giving over great space for his imprisoned subjects recount their stories.)

I wouldn’t say that photographing prison guards hadn’t happened by the early eighties, but it was unusual. So for Saltzman to get the written reflections of guard Ralph K. Millam (above) is significant too. Most photography projects within prison focus on the prisoners and very few focus on both the kept and the keepers.

In short, due to both its subject matter and approach, Saltzman’s La Pinta is landmark. Prisons weren’t photographed much in the early eighties and certainly not for as long as a year, the time it took Saltzman to complete the work. Its collaborative methodology allows for heightened emotional impact and positions it ahead of other works that later used similar formulas and embodied likeminded sympathies.

See more here.

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