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The Oracle gathering? An International Mob of Mystery? Well, not exactly but given that Oracle is the main meeting of the world’s most influential people in the museum/fine art photography scene it is amazing the gathering flies under the radar year on year.

I’ve done some internet sleuthing to tell you some of what you need to know about the Bilderberg of the photography world.

Okay, it might not be so cloak and dagger as I have set it up, but The Annual International Conference for Photography Curators dubbed ‘Oracle’ has no web presence and no connection to the circles outside of the attendees. This (presumably intended) detachment is – simply put – a shame. Granted, these are people predominantly involved in museum curating, but still wouldn’t it be great to know what they are talking about when they meet each November?! Museums still feed into the photography ecosystem, and often define it.

Oracle began in 1982 as an informal gathering. In 2003, Deidre Stein Greben wrote, “Attendance at Oracle […] has grown from ten to more than 100 over the last 20 years.”

With such an organically unhurried growth, why should curators care to share their dialogues? Hell, the week might be the closest thing many of them get to a holiday. Add to that the fact that there’s no external promotion or grand narratives to push, it makes sense that no-one would take on the extra workload of interfacing with the public and all that entails.

I also think of photography curators as a similar breed to university professors; the culture of research, writing and custodianship of department agendas does not dovetail with blogging the discoveries and knowledge from their daily work. (David Campbell summarises well how the reluctance of universities to adopt social networking is to their detriment.) It’s a shame. How good would a Sandra Phillips blog be?!

The 2010 Oracle is ongoing right now in Israel (Jerusalem, I think).

This is where my sleuthing gets patchy but other host institutions/cities have included; Museum of Fine Arts, Houston (1992); George Eastman House, Rochester (1993); Washington (1999); Finnish Museum of Photogaphy, Helsinki (2000); Goa, India (2003); Museum of Contemporary Photography, Chicago (2004); Artimino, Florence (2005); Prague, Czech Republic (2006); Center for Creative Photography, Tucson, AZ (2007) and Paris, France (2009).

My guess is attendance is invitation only or some approximation thereof. Just because I gleaned a smattering of names, I’ll share them. Attendees have included Britt Salvesen, Director of photography and prints at LACMA; Doug Nickel, Professor of Photographic History at Brown University; Sunil Gupta, Artist, photographer, curator and educator; Allison Nordstrom, Curator of photography at George Eastman House; David E. Haberstich, Associate Curator of Photographs at the Smithsonian; Celina Lunsford, Director of the Fotografie Forum Frankfurt; Olivia Lahs-Gonzales, Director of the Sheldon Art Galleries in St. Louis; Dr Sara Frances Stevenson, Chief Curator of the Scottish National Photography Collection, National Galleries of Scotland (retired); Mary Panzer, freelance writer & curator of photography & American culture; Ms. Agne Narusyte, Curator, Vilnius Art Museum Photographic Collection, Vilnius, Lithuania; Shelly Rice, Professor of Arts at NYU Tisch School of Arts; Enrica Viganò, curator and fine art photography critic; Duan Yuting, founder of the Lianzhou International Photo Festival; Mark Haworth-Booth, Head of Photographs, Victoria & Albert Museum; Anne Wilkes Tucker, photography curator at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston; Sandra S. Phillips, Senior Curator of Photography at San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

Quite the list. And I can think of many other photography curators who presumably would attend (Rod Slemmons, Anthony Bannon, Brian Wallis, Charlotte Cotton, Malcolm Daniel?) Who knows?

It’s not a totally closed shop though. Despite the 2006 shuttering of the Oracle listserv, some plucky “Independents” have set up a NING type forum, Oracle Independents. It is sporadically updated with links to articles and events about historically significant photography. Currently there are 40 members, some names recognisable. But this doesn’t get us to the meat of those dialogues currently ongoing in Jerusalem.

Last thing to say, is that the museum world is separate from the worlds of gallery, photojournalist, fine art, auction house, social documentary, magazine, fashion and art-school photographies. Even if we did have a line in on the world’s leading curators’ discussions, the information may have no bearing on our aims, art or careers. Heck, we might not even be interested. But it’d be nice wouldn’t it?

Not wanting to be pessimistic, but unable to help myself, consider this quote from Marvin Heiferman, freelance author, editor and curator and “champion of the blue-collar nature of the silent majority of photographs.” Bear in mind he’s talking about very early Oracle, but nonetheless, the quote highlights potential disconnects between different orbits of the photography world.

“When I started looking at this new [Postmodern] work, I loved its nonchalance, intelligence and cheekiness, the fact that it was interested in both seeing and seeing through images. The photo world, though, wasn’t as amused, and didn’t have a clue what the small group of us was getting so jazzed up about. Toward the end of my stint at Castelli in the early 1980s—and then when I went off on my own to work with photographers and artists and produce exhibitions—I attended some of the early annual meetings of Oracle. This was a conference of photography curators from around the world who gathered together supposedly to talk about the future of the field, and was funded by Sam Yanes at the Polaroid Corporation. Polaroid supported a lot of progressive photographic projects in the 1970s and ’80s. It was, to say the least, disappointing to me that most of the attendees were more excited to fuss over 19th- and 20th-century work and issues of preservation and storage. But there were a handful of us—including Andy Grundberg, who was writing for the New York Times, and Jeff Hoone from Syracuse—who did our best to raise interest in the new work we were so excited by. No one seemed to care.” (Source)

Scott Fortino‘s book Institutional: Photographs of Jails, Schools, and other Chicago Buildings (2005) is important because it hit the shelves two years prior to Richard Ross’ Architecture of Authority (2007).*

People tend to think of Richard Ross’ Architecture of Authority as being the authoritative (pun unintended) photographic statement on use of identical spatial psychologies across the breadth of contemporary institutions. Perhaps Fortino can, and should, disrupt that position.

Patently, the publishing date of a book doesn’t close the argument, but I think it is apt to call these two photographers contemporaries in every sense of the word.

There are differences between Fortino and Ross’ work. Fortino’s work looks exclusively at Chicago institutions, whereas Ross – powered by a Guggenheim grant – took his survey international.

Fortino has an unusual bio, working as a photographer and police patrolman. Ross, on the other hand, is a professor in photography for the University of California, Santa Barbara. Interestingly, Ross, the son of a policeman is open about his father’s influence on his work.

I’d really like to see Fortino sat down giving a commentary on his work, just as Ross has here. Better still, I’d love to see Fortino and Ross at the same table!

– – – –

Scott Fortino’s Institutional portfolio, and more here from the Museum of Contemporary Photography Chicago.

BIO

Scott Fortino is a photographer who also works as a patrolman with the Chicago Police Department. His photographs are in the permanent collections of the LaSalle Bank of Chicago, the Museum of Contemporary Photography in Chicago, and numerous private collections.

* The synopsis provided for Institutional: Photographs of Jails, Schools, and other Chicago Buildings by UC Press, for me, misses the mark completely. Fortino’s work isn’t about the “subtle warmth and depth” of these spaces but of the disciplinary form written in the materials, demarcation and use of these spaces.

Lloyd DeGrane‘s work is long-term and it is honest. DeGrane would like to see more transparency surrounding American correctional facilities, “I think people, taxpayers should see what they’re getting for their money”. I came across DeGrane in James R Hugunin’s 1996 curated exhibit Discipline and Photograph.

DeGrane carried out his Prison series between 1990 and 2001, when he photographed within the state maximum security Stateville Correctional Center,  Illinois and Cook County Jail in Chicago. The three photos featured here each depict scenes at Stateville.

DeGrane took the time to discuss the role of photography in sites of incarceration, a photographer’s best approach, the names and labels given to him by inmates and images of the spaces between cells.

Did you await each photo opportunity? While working, were you alone or accompanied on the corridor or wing?

“I was usually escorted by a counselor – an unassuming, non-threatening person. Sometimes I’d go into a unit and walk around by myself, being careful not to get out of the view of a correctional officer. Stateville is a maximum security facility so some of the inmates were violent offenders. I talked to the inmates directly, sometimes going into their cells. For the most part the officials let me browse freely and talk to any inmates I wanted. Things, to a point, were pretty transparent. When I came into a unit someone would usually yell out my arrival”.

Isolation Unit, Stateville Correctional Center, 1992. Lloyd Degrane

Isolation Unit, Stateville Correctional Center, 1992. Lloyd Degrane

What is happening in the Isolation Unit photograph?

“This is the isolation unit – I called it ‘the jail within the prison’. Inmates who committed an offense in the prison were taken out of the general population and held there 23 hours a day with one hour for outside exercise. That [the display of legs and arms] was the first reaction to me being on the wing”.

“The inmates, for reasons unknown to me, thought I was a state official of some kind. But, after I got to talking with a few people independently I was able to photograph several inmates with no problems, with the exception of one inmate who would try to throw excrement at the guards”.

Lockdown Protest, Stateville Correctional Center, 1993. Llloyd Degrane

Lockdown Protest, Stateville Correctional Center, 1993. Lloyd Degrane

Explain the situation here, with the trash and food on the floor.

“That was taken in 1993. Inmates were ending a five day lock-down and totally disgusted by the lunch served (cold baloney sandwiches every day). So, they threw the servings out of their cells onto the floor. The floor of the wing is commonly known as ‘the flag’.”

“Guards eventually had to clean it up. I noticed when I came back the next week that the roach problem was severe. I had to tuck my pant legs into my socks so the roaches wouldn’t crawl up my legs”.

Protective Custody Unit, Stateville Correctional Center, 1992. Lloyd Degrane

Protective Custody Unit, Stateville Correctional Center, 1992. Lloyd Degrane

The interaction between the guard and inmate in the protective custody unit is fascinating – it melds contortion, humanity, routine and unlikely types for the prison environment.

“The inmate was in the protective custody unit. That’s a pregnant guard that’s looking at him. He didn’t have a mirror so the only way he could see what was happening outside his cell was to stick his head out of the food tray slot.”

Did the subjects of your images, specifically inmates, see the photographs after they were produced/exhibited?

“I always made a small photo for the inmates. Sometimes they got them and sometimes the warden or captain (for reasons I do not know) didn’t get around to giving them the photo. But, I was able to get a little deeper into the lives of the inmates that received photos.”

How do you work?

“The images are made slowly and carefully. No surprises. Observation and discussion with the inmates and then photos. That was my modus operandi. It’s like going into someone’s home, they know you’re there! So, it’s best to be respectfully curious. Some inmates wanted nothing to do with me (I think they had committed other crimes on the outside and didn’t want to be recognized). Other inmates didn’t mind at all. I talked with people all the time. I think taxpayers should see what they’re getting for their money. Transparency is key. But, many prison officials believe the opposite and in their facility, they rule!

Final thoughts on the prison system?

Prisons – and not correctional facilities (as the State of Illinois has named their institutions) – the concrete human warehouses behind razor wire are just that! Buildings that confine people. It’s an existential experience in a world that is both separate from America but a big part of the American economy. One sees homemade signs along Interstate 55 that read, ‘Don’t shut our prison down’, ‘Save the prison, Save our jobs’ outside Pontiac, Illinois, home to another maximum security facility that may close because of state budget cuts.

Don’t get me wrong though, some people belong in prison. I met many men who raped innocent women, killed children, beat other men to death for a few dollars and some who murdered their cellmates. I was glad that I didn’t meet them in a dark alley in Chicago. But, one thought that always went through my mind was, most of these people will get out some day. Will they change for the better or just be better criminals?

You kept an index of how the prisoners referred to you. It’s length, variety and contradictions reflect well the complexity of social experience within correctional facilities. Can you remind us of the index?

This is my index of how inmates referred to me. Picture Man, White man, The Man White Mother Fuckin’ Press Man, Black Gang Lover, Spic Gang Lover, White Prisoner Lover, Straight Dude Looking for Something – Policeman, The Photo Man, The European, The Springfield Connection, A Fair Man, An O.K. Photographer, An Artist, Homes, Homey, Fuckin’ Photographer, Homo, Fuckin’ Camera Man, The Camera Man, Inmate Lover, The Police, Friend and Cute Mother Fucker (The label given to me by Richard Speck).

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