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How can images tell the story of mass incarceration when the imprisoned don’t have control over their own representation? This is the question Dr. Nicole R. Fleetwood asks as editor of the latest Aperture (Spring 2018).

Prison Nation” can be ordered online today and hits the news-stands next week. Devoted to prison imagery and discussion of mass incarceration, the issue presents a slew of works across contrasting genres — landmark documentary by Bruce JacksonJoseph Rodriguez and Keith Calhoun & Chandra McCormick; luscious and uncanny portraits by Jack Lueders-Booth, Deborah Luster and Jamel Shabazz; insider images from Nigel PoorLorenzo Steele, Jr. and Jesse Krimes; and contemporary works by Sable Elyse Smith, Emily Kinni, Zora Murff, Lucas Foglia and Stephen Tourlentes.

Equally exciting is the banger roster of thinkers contributing essays, intros and conversations — including Mabel O. Wilson, Shawn Michelle Smith, Christie Thompson, Jordan Kisner, Zachary Lazar, Rebecca Bengal, Brian WallisJessica Lynne, Reginald Dwayne Betts, Ruby Tapia, Zarinah Shabazz, Brian Stevenson, Sarah LewisHank Willis Thomas and Virginia Grise.

I have an essay ‘Prison Index’ included which looks back on almost a decade of this Prison Photography website–how it began, what it has done and what it has become. I highlight a dozen-or-so photographers’ works that are not represented by features in the issue itself. I wonder how PP functions as an archive and what role it serves for public memory and knowledge.

MATCHING QUALITY CONTENT WITH QUALITY DESIGN

I’ve known for years that Prison Photography requires a design overhaul. This past week, I’ve moved forward with plans for that. It goes without saying that the almost-daily blogging routine of 2008 with which Prison Photography began has morphed into a slower publishing schedule. There’s a plethora of great material on this website but a lot of it is buried in the blog-scroll format. My intention is to redesign PP as more of an “occasionally-updated archive” whereby the insightful interviews from years past are drawn up to the surface.

It’s time to make this *database* of research more legible and searchable. Clearly, as this Aperture issue demonstrates, the niche genre of prison photographs is vast and it demands a more user-friendly interface for this website. I’m proud to be included in “Prison Nation” but know it’s a timely prod to develop Prison Photography’s design and serve the still-crucial discussions.

 

 

Get your copy of Aperture, Issue 230 “Prison Nation” here.

Thanks to the staff at Aperture, especially Brendan Wattenberg and Michael Famighetti for ushering and editing the piece through.

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Death Row with Inmate Mural (Sad Clown) in Sing Sing Correctional Facility. New York, 2011.

My parents are thinking about moving out of the house I grew up in. They asked me how I felt about it. In truth, I don’t mind one bit. Still, I appreciate them asking. Places hold memories, for sure, and it was mindful of them to ask my brothers and I how we felt about the house, its relationship to our memories, and a future without it. We Brooks, though, are a pragmatic bunch and feel that as soon as the house is vacated it stops being a home and just bricks and mortar for others to occupy and make their own memories. Likewise, we Brooks will make newer memories in my parents’ new home when we gather for holidays and so forth.

This occurred to me as I was browsing Emily Kinni‘s series Sites Of Execution. Kinni is interested in how quickly the function and memory of places change and her pictures demonstrate how rapidly change can occur. She has photographed not just former sites of execution in the U.S. but, specifically, the former sites of execution in the 17 states that have abolished capital punishment. If the places in Kinni’s hold memories they are violent, sad, retributive and final.

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Original Execution Chamber. Electric Chair and Lethal Injection. Now Unused Conference Room in the New Jersey State Prison. New Jersey, 2011.

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Original Site of Execution. Hanging. Lobby of the State office Department. Alaska, 2011.

I noted Kinni’s work 18-months ago, with criticisms that the series was not complete and that her statement was unintentionally misleading. I am pleased to report that my ‘Watch This Space’ caution has been met with a well-rounded project. Kinni’s survey of the sites (which took over two years) is thorough and her elusive images require work by the viewer to decipher what’s going on. The variety of reused spaces are convincing reminders of how fleetingly history and memory deal with even the most traumatising events.

Interestingly, Kinni is not a crusader for the abolition movement; her images are not intended as a call to challenge death penalty laws in 33 states … and nor do they read that way.

“My affinity for these sites, cannot be considered without the political and historical issues of the death penalty, but it isn’t where it begins,” says Kinni. “My interest is in the evolution of these sites – how places for execution are changed and what the sites become eliminating their historical relevance.”

Many photographers have dealt with memory and landscape by contrasting their images of seemingly benign sites with captions that describe past horrors or crimes. Four worth mentioning would be Eva Leitolf‘s Looking For Evidence – a survey of hate crimes in Europe; Jessica Ingram‘s A Civil Rights Memorial – photographs of hate crimes in America; Joel Sternfeld‘s Landscape In Memoriam – photographs of interpersonal, corporate and environmental crimes; and Taryn Simon‘s The Innocents – an obfuscation of memory and testimony.

Tensions between apparently innocuous images and their factual captions will always capture my attention. Such purposeful tensions are engaging.

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Old Sparky, West Virginia Penitentiary. 2011 (left); Leather Mask and Three Switches, West Virginia Penitentiary. 2011 (right).

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Gas Chamber on the Spectator Side. Gas Chamber. Still sits in the now abandoned New Mexico State State Penitentiary. New Mexico, 2011.

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Original Execution Chamber. Electric Chair. Now a Vocational Space in Sing Sing Correctional Facility. New York, 2011.

Some of Kinni’s sites are no longer prisons and she was helped with her research by local experts.

“I was fortunate enough to meet people among a select few – if not the only people living – who possess facts and documents about where the last executions took place,” says Kinni. “They owned historical evidence within their personal collections and homes that didn’t exist elsewhere. Without their knowledge, I would have been at a huge loss.”

In other cases, where prison space has been repurposed, Kinni experienced the same labyrinthine negotiations common of prison photography projects.

“The level of negotiation varied state by state,” she says. “The hardest negotiations were in states where people I had begun communication with particular officials, who changed positions or retired unbeknownst to me.”

I like this project. Take a look.

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Original Site of Execution. Hanging. Now a Janitorial Break Room. Minnesota, 2011.

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The Original Site of Execution. Hanging. Now a parking lot in the Oahu Community Correctional Center. Hawaii, 2012.

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Original Site of the Last Execution. Hanging. Now a Department Store. Rhode Island, 2012.

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Original Site of Execution. Hanging. Now a Residence. Wisconsin, 2012.

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Original site of the Execution Chamber. Was last used as a basketball court for inmates until the Prison closed. The chamber has been recreated using original materials inside the prison walls in its own museum. Electric Chair. West Virginia Penitentiary, 2011.

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Original Site of Execution, Hanging. The prison was torn down and buried below the field which is now in it’s place. A Sign raises a question of what will be next for the site. Maine, 2012.

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Original Site of Execution. Electric Chair. Now a Retirement Home. Vermont, 2012.

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Original Site of Execution, Electric Chair. The prison was torn down and is now a highway lane. Massachusetts, 2012.

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Gas Chamber, Closed, New Mexico State Penitentiary. 2011 (left); Gas Chamber, Open, New Mexico State Penitentiary, 2011 (right).

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Site of the Original Execution Chamber, Hanging. Now Empty Space inside Iowa State Penitentiary. Iowa, 2011.

Church within West Virginia Penitentiary, 2011

Emily Kinni, recent recipient of a Tierney Fellowship, has an intriguing project named Where Death Dies for which she has photographed former execution sites and decommissioned execution chambers, electric chair and death apparatus.

New Jersey State Prison was the site of executions until the Garden State outlawed the death penalty in 2007, and West Virginia Penitentiary ceased as the site of state executions in 1959.

West Virginia Penitentiary itself was decommissioned in 1986 and has since become a tourist destination; on view is ‘Old Sparky‘, the prison’s once-used electric chair. Kinni photographed a basketball court where the execution chamber used to be sited.

This is a young project and potentially still in the making. Having being named a Tierney Fellow though, it is likely Kinni will move away from this subject matter. The primary goal of the Tierney Fellowship is:

“to find tomorrow’s distinguished artists and leaders in the world of photography and assist them in overcoming the challenges that a photographer faces at the beginning of his or her career. […] At the end of the one-year grant period, recipients are expected to present a new body of work.”

We’ll keep our eyes peeled.

As a footnote, comparable projects on death chambers would be Lucinda Devlin’s Omega Suites and Mark Jenkinson’s Death Row.

Thanks to Hester for the tip off. View the other 2011 Tierney Fellows here.

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