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© David Maisel, from the series Library of Dust

A new database should help infamous cremated remains find their way back into the possession of family members.

David Maisel‘s Library of Dust is well-known by now. Maisel got early access to a basement of decaying copper cans that hold the cremains of nearly 3,500 former mental institution patients who lived and died – and remained unknown and/or unclaimed – at Oregon State Psychiatric Hospital.

Maisel’s images reflected the keen interest the story garnered across the US (see Oregon’s Forgotten Hospital, Oregonian and Long-forgotten Remains of Oregon’s Mentally Ill, New York Times).

I placed Maisel’s work in the context of a longer visual history of the institution.

Last month, Oregon authorities – pushed by a committed volunteer Don Whetsell – announced a new venture to locate surviving families. The Los Angeles Times reports:

“Officials now hope that the launch this year of an online database detailing the 3,476 canisters yet to be claimed will help other relatives reunite, or unite for the first time.”

If you are in Liverpool over the next couple of months, then you should drop in to any number of the exhibits put by LOOK2011 the inaugural Liverpool Photography Festival.

The theme for the festival is “Is Seeing Believing?” Of particular interest is Confined at the Bluecoat.

Confined is an exploration of the idea of confinement in contemporary life by photographers Juergen Chill, Edmund Clark, John Darwell, Dornith Doherty, Ben Graville, David Maisel and David Moore. Subjects range from imprisonment and detention, the ethical treatment of animals, ecological conservation and the history of psychiatric care.

I have a personal involvement in the show. Exhibitions curator Sara-Jayne Parsons asked me to pen some words for the Confined catalogue. And, after interviewing David Moore about his Paddington Green Police Station series I encouraged him to contact Parsons and together they decided to exhibit the prints. It will be the first time Moore has publicly shown his Paddington Green Police Station photographs.

Unfortunately, I won’t be making it over to the UK soon, but I hope those of you who are in Blighty make it to the exhibition, not to mention all the other LOOK2011 exhibits, lectures and workshops.

Confined is on show at the Bluecoat, School Lane, Liverpool L1 3BX, from Fri, 13 May 2011 – Sun, 10 Jul 2011, 10.00 AM – 6.00 PM, Tickets: Free. (Visitor info)


Yesterday, the internets celebrated Earth Day. The irony in this is that our grandparents’ generation would or could find nothing more incongruous than screen-sucked individuals posting pixels about the earth instead of actually being in its woods, lakes, deserts and mountains. I am not exempt from scorn.

Within the blogophotosphere the general tactic was to post aerial photographies. 100 eyes went to town with a series of Where Am I Now quizettes. NPR went with the easy but stunning option of Geo-Eye’s aerial images. On the aerial theme, i heart photograph posted an unintended but fitting selection of Eva-Fiore Kovacovsky’s photography. The Big Picture did not disappoint with a medley of seriously good environmental issues, opening with a shot of earth from space and Indicommons presented photochroms, albumen & photomechanical prints of nature from earth’s best collecting institutions. And, all of this buttressed by PhotoInduced‘s assertion that digital photography is the green option.

I began to think how aerial photography could tie in with prison photography. Last month, I used some official California Department of Corrections & Rehabilitation (CDCR) images for a post, and in doing so noted the fleeting resemblance of some patterns in the prison-adjacent fields to the salt-pan and tilled earthscapes of David Maisel.

Disclaimer: David, if you are reading, I respect your craft, fine art and politic. In March I camped at Owens Lake and your project formed the basis for much of our camp fire discussion. I hope you don’t think it inappropriate to juxtapose your work with standard state-sanctioned aerial photography.

Salinas Valley State Prison. Courtesy CDCR




California Training Facility


Substance Abuse Treatment Facility at Corcoran. Courtesy CDCR




A CDCR image appears before the text. After the text, images are arranged alternatively beginning with a CDCR image. Any image without a prison is a David Maisel.


David Maisel’s oeuvre is dedicated to altered environmental landscapes. Maisel’s images featured in this article are from The Lake Project which, along with Terminal Mirage, makes up his ongoing ‘Black Maps’  project recording “the impact on the land from industrial efforts such as mining, logging, water reclamation, and military testing.” Maisel’s official bio continues, “Because these sites are often remote and inaccessible, Maisel frequently works from an aerial perspective, thereby permitting images and photographic evidence that would be otherwise unattainable.” Prisons are often remote and inaccessible in California.

In all our justified concern for the environment and its invisible, gradual damages, I also want us to also to consider the invisible, gradual damages done to our social landscape. Men and women are wasted in America’s prisons.


Prison Photography recommends Geoff Manaugh’s extended interview with Maisel at Archinect, audio interview at Lens Culture, Joerg Colberg’s interview at Seesaw Magazine and a full environmentally friendly CV from the Green Museum.

David Maisel was born in New York City in 1961. He received his BA from Princeton University, and his MFA from California College of the Arts, in addition to study at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design. Maisel was a Scholar in Residence at the Getty Research Institute in 2007 and an Artist in Residence at the Headlands Center for the Arts in 2008. He has been the recipient of an Individual Artist’s Grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, and was short-listed for the Prix Pictet in 2008. Maisel lives and works in the San Francisco area, where he has been based since 1993.


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