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What do I want from this year? I want to continue the fun I have researching. I want a rip-roaring online symposium on race, diversity and photography. I want to be continually surprised by the things I discover. I want to deliver juxtapositions that make one pause. I want to do more interviews with photographers. I want to talk to more people in prison education. I want to change one persons view and then move on from there.

Covering Photography is the type of site I love to stumble across. Much like PhotoEphemera it is a site of tangential but significant importance to the role of photography in wider culture.

There are four books in the archive that feature prison photography. I have talked before about Cornell Capa‘s commitment to prison issues. Danny Lyon‘s career as a journalist is indelibly tied to American prisons. Arthur Tress and especially Charles Gatewood are not known for their prison photography.

I have bunched book covers with hand-picked works of each photographer as a playful convergence to kick off the new year.


Halloween © Arthur Tress



Russian and American soldiers, part of the Allied occupation forces, at a multinational party, Berlin 1945. © Cornell Capa/Magnum



Texas Prison, Ramsey Unit © Danny Lyon



Wall Street © Charles Gatewood


In photography Cornell Capa has huge renown. In prisons, Attica has a huge renown. It is therefore, expected that I’d transcribe Capa’s testimony to the McKay Commission (New York State Special Commission on Attica) Hearings.

After the text I shall offer my opinion.


Cornell Capa: I was asked eventually by Arthur [Liman, Counsel] if I would want to look at Attica for the reasons that he mentioned, that photography and a photographer may have something to contribute …

As a human being and a photographer, my personal and professional and civic feeling was to look into it and – as my professional life is involved in understanding human condition – try to perceive what it is all about.

I think photography can serve a most useful role in an investigation and that’s exactly what I consented to do.

I [have] submitted 26 photographs which I will be showing to the commission and I have submitted equally a very short written statement and captions for the photographs.

I would like to really just read my written statement and following that as the photographs go by, I will do the captioning job for them.

At Attica: A Photographic Report.

Recently I spent three days at Attica, having been asked by the McKay commission to take a look at the institution and bring back my visual report.

During the visits to Attica I was, at all times, accompanied by a correction officer and a member of the Commission staff; all persons recognizable in these photographs consented to be photographed.

My photographs and their captions constitute my report for the commission. There is just a little more to add.

A feeling of nervous expectation seems to pervade Attica. Everybody is waiting the result of the work of the Commission’s investigations on the causes of the explosion which occurred there six months ago, and their recommendations for the future avoidance of such a tragedy in the future. Both sides, inmates and guards expect some new things to evolve from the findings – some kind of miracle which will transform the institution into a place where the Biblical lion and lamb will better live together peacefully.

The only hitch: each side has its very own view of the meaning of peaceful and better coexistence, and how to achieve it.

From the outside, Attica situated in the rolling farmland in western New York, has a Disneyland-like appearance, especially at night.

Attica’s inmates are all locked in their cells from approximately 5pm until 7am the next morning. Officers on the night shift make lonely rounds checking the count six times a night.

All movement in Attica is limited by locks. At night the duty officer must carry with him all the keys he will need on his nightly round of inspection

Confined to their 4 x 9 cells, inmates may talk to one another across the cellblocks and play music instruments until 8pm.

Locked in a cell a mirror is an inmates eyes to the rest of his gallery, and whenever something happens, the mirrors appear as if on cue.

After 8pm talking and noise  are not permitted. There is little to do until lights out at 11pm except read, write letters or listen to one of the three channels of the prison radio which plays music, sports and the audio portion of TV shows.

In E Block, Attica’s medium security prison with the maximum-security walls, a small group of inmates in special programs are permitted to remain at night in the blocks day room to watch television, play cards or talk.

Corrections officers on the day shift leave homes in the town of Attica and surrounding communities and report for roll calls at 7am, 9.20am, 3pm and 11pm to receive their assignments.

These are the guns and smoke parts etc, what [sic] they keep  in the armory for emergency use only.

These are the keys, which they use, the whole system is based on keys. This is just a very small selection of all the keys that open all the doors in Attica

On signal the cells open and inmates in each company line up in two’s to be escorted down one of the endless corridors to the mess hall for breakfast

In his daily movements throughout the institution, an inmate must pass through several times through ‘Times Square’ where the corridors leading from the four main cell blocks converge and gates point in four directions.

Many inmates spend up to five hours a day working in one of the prison industries, the largest of which is a large metal shop, where inmates build steel cabinets and office furniture for state institutions.

For a few hours each day, inmates are allowed to go into their cellblock’s yard for outdoor recreation

The sports facilities, always limited, have been even more curtailed since September. For most inmates the yard means walking around and around or standing around.

The only opportunity for most inmates to watch TV is outside in the yard. Due to the winter climate and the meager daytime TV schedules, few are interested.

While some are out in the yard, others return to their cellblocks. In some areas there are improvised meeting rooms where a few inmates can pursue simple hobbies and handicrafts.

For the rest it is back to the cells to pass the hours until supper. The site of disembodied hands outside the bars playing cards is not unusual here.

Some play chess but the opponent remains unseen.

There is so much idle time; one of the most common activities is preparing legal paper for appeals and writs.

9.30 to 3.30 every day are visiting hours. Those inmates whose families live nearby or who can afford the long journey to Attica may receive a visit. Visits take place in a large room, under the watch of officers and a wire screen separates the inmates from his visitor.

An inmate’s personal touch, often his own creation, is the difference between one cell and another.

One of the statewide changes since the riot is the creation of inmate liaison committees at each institution.

The committee at Attica was elected last month, has adopted a constitution and has begun the task of drawing up projected reforms.

Although life at Attica is again becoming routine, grim reminders of what happened there are everywhere.

This is the round State Shop in damaged condition beyond repair.

Two of the cells blocks were destroyed beyond repair and are still unoccupied. D Block yard on which the eyes of the world were focused for four days last September is deserted now. The trench is filled in but remains visible like a scar reminding one of the great illness which fell upon Attica seven months ago.



Capa’s review is a rather bland description of everyday life in the prison. This comes as quite a disappointment; I had expected a rousing polemic against the unsuitable conditions of mammoth prisons and their effect on the will of man.

These words seem particularly tame when one considers the magnitude, violence and precendence Attica has in the history of prison resistance. The words are detached from the extremely graphic photographs [WARNING] documenting the riot and its bloody remnants. Capa’s words are the epitome of obsolescence.

Attica was a disaster.

On Sept. 13, [1972] in upstate New York, a four-day standoff at the Attica Correctional Facility ended when 500 state troopers attacked the prison compound, firing 2,200 bullets in nine minutes. The raid killed 29 inmates and 10 guards held as hostages, while wounding at least 86 other people. The orders came from Gov. Nelson Rockefeller.

Capa’s words fall short of the strength needed to describe the institution six months on from disaster.

I encourage you all to browse Attica Revisited an encyclopaedic resource of official papers, oral history video and photography.

Book Cover

Cornell Capa, to some extent, lived in the shadow of his older brother Robert. I guess, it is easy for complacent men to adore the still and fallen martyr than to keep apace with a passionate and piqued practitioner. Cornell’s and Robert’s legends are one; Cornell ceaselessly fought his brother’s corner authenticity debate surrounding The Falling Soldier.

Cornell’s indebtedness to his brother was fateful and self-imposed:

“From that day,” Mr. Capa said about his brother’s death, “I was haunted by the question of what happens to the work a photographer leaves behind, by how to make the work stay alive.”

Disappointingly, it is only in extended surveys of Cornell Capa’s career that mention of his fifties photojournalism in Central and Southern America arises. Otherwise, Cornell is celebrated for his political journalism and particularly his campaign coverage of Adlai E. Stevenson, Jack and Bobby Kennedy. Cornell’s photographs from Latin America are often neglected, even demoted.



The Kennedys were the foci of American progressive attitudes, and so, in the sixties, Cornell documented the concerned politician. Cornell was (not in a negative way) passive and the sixties were not formative. It was in the fifties that he actively worked to define the persona, the ideal: ‘The Concerned Photographer’.

Family Planning Honduras


Cornell’s work in Latin America:

Beginning in 1953, Capa traveled regularly to Central and South America. He focused extensively on the explosive politics of the region, particularly issues such as elections, free speech, foreign investments, and workers’ rights. His first trip was to Guatemala for Life. Capa photographed banana workers and peasants, and the complicated relationship and struggle for power between the local leftist leaders, President Jacobo Arbenz and the U.S.-owned United Fruit Company. In his most dynamic news story, he covered the collapse and fiery aftermath of the regime of dictator Juan Peron in Argentina in 1955. A year later he photographed in Nicaragua following the assassination of dictator Anastasio Somoza.

In 1956, he was sent to Ecuador by Life to cover the brutal murder of five Christian missionaries. This was to be a life changing experience. Typical of the way Capa was to engage with his subjects over many years, rather than taking the photographs and leaving the scene, he continued to photograph the story over time. In particular, he focused on one of the widows, Betty Elliot, and her extraordinary, understanding relationship with the Indians with whom she and her young daughter lived for several years, as she pursued her missionary work and research into the native language and customs.

In 1956, Cornell was in Nicaragua reporting on the assassination of President Anastasio Somoza García. Somoza was shot by a young Nicaraguan poet; the murder only disrupting slightly the Somoza dynasty that lasted until the revolution of 1979 (that’s where Susan Meiselas picks up).

In the aftermath of the assassination over 1,000 “dissidents” were rounded up. The murder was used as an excuse and means to suppress many, despite the act being that of one man.


Nicaragua Prison

I have no knowledge of what happened to these men after Cornell photographed them and I am sure you haven’t the patience for speculative-art-historio-speak.

I do wonder … if having witnessed revolution, early democracies, military juntas, coups, communism, social movements, grand narratives and oppression in various forms, if Cornell picked his subjects with discernment back in the United States.

As early as 1954 Cornell was working on a story for Life about the education of developmentally disabled children and young adults. Up and to that point in time, the subject had been regarded by most American magazines as taboo. The feature was a breakthrough.

In 1966, in memorial to his brother, Robert, and out of his “professed growing anxiety about the diminishing relevance of photojournalism in light of the increasing presence of film footage on television news” Cornell founded the Fund for Concerned Photography. In 1974, this ideal found a bricks and mortar home on 5th Ave & 94th Street in New York: The International Center for Photography.

Attica Chess

This institutional limbo that eventually gave rise to one of the world’s most important photography organisations was not a quiet period for Cornell. In 1972, he was commissioned to Attica, NY, to document visually the conditions of the prison. Capa presented his evidence to the McKay report (PDF, Part 1, pages 8-14) the body investigating the cause of the unrest. Cornell narrates his personal observations while showing his photographs to the commission.

Moving Prisoners, Attica

Yard, Attica

At a time when, the photojournalist community seems to have crises of confidence and purpose at an alarming rate, it would be wise to embrace his spirit in full recognition his slow accumulation of remarkable accomplishments.

Rest In Peace, Cornell.


Robert F. Kennedy campaigning in Elmira, New York, September 1964. Accession#: CI.9685
New York City. 1960. Senator John F. KENNEDY and his wife, Jackie, campaigning for the presidency. NYC19480 (CAC1960014 W00020/XX). Copyright Cornell Capa C/Magnum Photos
Three men pushing John Deere machine, Honduras, 1970-73. Accession#: CI.3746
Watching family planning instructional film at Las Crucitas clinic, Tegucigalpa, Honduras], 1970-73. Accession#: CI.8544
Political dissidents arrested after the assassination of Nicaraguan dictator, Anastasio Somoza, Managua, Nicaragua, September 1956. The LIFE Magazine Collection. Accession#: 2009.20.13
NICARAGUA. Managua. 1956. Some of the one thousand political dissidents who were arrested after the assassination of Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio Somoza. NYC19539 (CAC1956012 W00004/09). Copyright Cornell Capa/Magnum Photos
Prisoners escorted from one area to another, Attica Correctional Facility, Attica, New York, March 1972 (printed 2008). Accession#: CI.9693
Two men walking around prison courtyard, Attica Correctional Facility, Attica, New York, March 1972. Accession#: CI.9689
Inmates playing chess from prison cells, Attica Correctional Facility, Attica, New York, March 1972. Accession#: CI.9688
Man on scooter carrying coffin, northeastern Brazil, 1962. Accession#: CI.8921

All photos courtesy of The Robert Capa and Cornell Capa Archive, Promised Gift of Cornell Capa, International Center of Photography. (Except for ‘The Concerned Photographer’ book cover; the Jack Kennedy photograph; & the second Nicaragua prison photograph.)


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