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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)

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The BBC reported today that Italy was to open its first prison to serve specifically transgender prison population. In terms of its policy and service, such a move is welcome and progressive.

The US, however, doesn’t have specific institutions for its transgendered inmates, instead it employs the following policy:

Transsexual people who have not had genital surgery are generally classified according to their birth sex for purposes of prison housing, regardless of how long they may have lived as a member of the other gender, and regardless of how much other medical treatment they may have undergone.  Transsexual people who have had genital surgery are generally classified and housed according to their reassigned sex.

This rigid policy can result in housing a woman (male-to-female trans) with a male inmate in the same cell. When this occurs, violent and/or sexual assault is common. Karen Franklin PhD posits that the prison system in the US establishes for transgendered youth a track toward future incarceration;

Transgender youth who get caught up in the juvenile justice system face extreme hostility and abuse at the hands of judges, counselors, correctional staff, and even their own court-appointed attorneys. They are more likely than other youths to be given harsh punishment in maximum-security institutions. This, of course, is part of the channeling toward adult prison.

So Italy is leading by example? Well, yes and no. The prison at Pozzale (near Florence) was formerly a women’s prison subject to senior staff abuses, consequent court battles and ongoing bureaucracy ensuring mismanagement of resources.  Recently it has housed only two inmates while other prisons in the area were overcrowded. The transgender prison is the socially-responsible solution; a new start for an institution with a corrupt past.

Source

There is a total dearth of photographs of this institution, but also of trangender prisoners in the media today. I hadn’t paid it any thought until I was pressed to search for images for this post. I hope and expect that photojournalists will document activities at the prison once the new inmates arrive. It is a worthy story; there is a need. I suspect the Italian authorities would want to put a positive media spin on the story, and also on the trangender realities that are unfortunately still uncomfortable and/or controversial for some members of the public.

Further reading

Transgender Prisoner Resources

“How I Survived Men’s Prison” by Kalani Key

Photography in prisons and jails isn’t always edgy nor riven with fraught emotion. Sometimes it can be quite ordinary. In fact, given the utter boredom of most prison facilities it would be good to see a photo essay that communicated effectively vacuous time and psychological space.

…but, I digress. Hetherington, over at the venerable What’s The Jackanory?, indulged in some “shameless self promotion” of his magazine work at North Branch Correctional Institution. Within the Wired article, Prisoners Run Gangs, Plan Escapes and Even Order Hits With Smuggled Cellphones, Hetherington’s images include a cell-tableaux, sniffing dog and bagged phone. I am more interested in the non-published images Hetherington provides in his post; they’re crisp, pared down images of inmate and interior.

Andrew Hetherington for Wired

Andrew Hetherington for Wired

It got me thinking about how the environmental fabric – along with the representation – of American prisons has changed.

When (documentary) photographers first began accessing prisons – Danny Lyon, Conversations with the Dead (1971), Jacob Holdt; Taro Yamasaki, Inside Jackson Prison (1981) – the conditions were poor.  And prisons were only one response to criminal behaviour and social contract.

Even latterly, Ken Light shot the black & white, in-your-face and sweaty Texas Death Row (1994) and in doing so romanticised historicised American prisons as definitively dirty sites of “the other”. By the 1990s, though, the US had implemented long term custodial sentences as the primary “solution” to crime. The phase-out of Federal parole beginning with Reagan and culminating with Clinton bloated the Federal Bureau of Prison (BOP) population, alone, from 40,000 to 200,000.

So two trends intersected: Prison populations swelled resulting in overcrowding and economically efficient facilities were rapidly being built. The mass construction of new warehouses prisons altered the spatial experience of confinement and the nature of interpersonal interaction within. Cell tiers were replaced by AdSeg wings.

The BOP has a reputation for housing the hardened criminal and specialises in high security facilities. Additionally, from the late 1980s states were building their own new high security and supermax prisons. This new penological architecture replaced 40 foot brick walls and watch towers with razor wire and motion sensors.

Prison environments are sparse. Problems with dark corners & damp have been replaced with the psychotrauma of constant fluorescent light. Problems with stashed contraband have been replaced with an absence of surfaces to set down objects. Denim uniforms have been replaced by sweat outfits. The penological management of gangs & group violence has been replaced with the pharmacological management of locked-up basket cases.

One former inmate of the Federal Supermax facility in Florence, Arizona (ADX) has described it as the “Perfection of Isolation.”

Correctional Officer Jose Sandoval inspects one of the more than 2,000 cell phones confiscated from inmates at Calfornia State Prison in Vacaville, California. Rich Pedroncelli / AP

Correctional Officer Jose Sandoval inspects one of the more than 2,000 cell phones confiscated from inmates at Calfornia State Prison in Vacaville, California. Rich Pedroncelli / AP

Telephoning a way out Isolation

“Cell phones,” says James Gondles, executive director of the American Correctional Association, “are now one of our top security threats.” (Wired, July, 2009)

I posited in the past that cell phones were just one part of the prison economy and their commodity status was in direct reaction to the cost of corporate-managed prison payphone systems – in essence a racket in response to a racket. However. having read the Wired article it is clear how much of a serious security threat cell phones pose to prison authorities.

The majority of tactics for isolation, perfected over the past 30 years by prison administrations, are rendered immediately obsolete,

With a wireless handset, an inmate can slip through walls and locked doors at will and maintain a digital presence in the outside world. Prisoners are using voice calls, text messages, email, and handheld Web browsers to taunt their victims, intimidate witnesses, run gangs, and organize escapes—including at least one incident in Tennessee in which a guard was killed. An Indiana inmate doing 40 years for arson made harassing calls to a 23-year-old woman he’d never met and phoned in bomb threats to the state fair for extra laughs.

So what’s the answer? Debate exists over the value and legality of jamming all signals around prisons but a High School in Spokane, WA proved localised signal-jamming a bad idea when it interfered with the local Sheriff’s radio signals.

We should also bear in mind that ‘The 1934 Communications Act prohibits anyone except the federal government from interfering with radio transmissions, which now include cell calls.’ (Wired)

Criminalize Smuggling but Not Talking

TIME does a good job of breaking down the stats and describing the evolution of the problem. It is obvious that authorities are going to make strategic response to a growing trend but prison authorities must not compromise the already limited opportunities for inmates to talk with friends and family. Close family ties and contact are key to reducing recidivism and giving former prisoners the best means to integrate back into society.

And of course, inmates aren’t the only ones caught up in the illicit trade of cell phones in prisons. One California prison guard admittedly to making over $100,000 in a year through smuggling and selling cell phones!

On that note, I offer you a CDCR sanctioned news VT.

As so very often, the spark of thought was ignited by the Change.org Criminal Justice blog.

Alabama Death House Prison, 2004. Silver print photograph. Stephen Tourlentes

Alabama Death House Prison, Grady, AL, 2004. Silver print photograph. © 2009 Stephen Tourlentes

Stephen Tourlentes photographs prisons only at night for it is then they change the horizon. Social division and ignorance contributed to America’s rapid prison growth. Tourlentes’ lurking architectures are embodiments of our shared fears. In the world Tourlentes proposes, light haunts; it is metaphor for our psycho-social fears and denial. Prisons are our bogeyman.

These prisons encroach upon our otherwise “safe” environments. Buzzing with the constant feedback of our carceral system, these photographs are the glower of a collective and captive menace. Hard to ignore, do we hide from the beacon-like reminders of our social failures, or can we use Tourlentes’ images as guiding light to better conscience?

Designed as closed systems, prisons illuminate the night and the world that built them purposefully outside of its boundaries. “It’s a bit like sonic feedback … maybe it’s the feedback of exile,” says Tourlentes.

Stephen Tourlentes has been photographing prisons since 1996. His many series – and portfolio as a whole – has received plaudits and secured funding from organisations including the John Simon Guggenheim Foundation, the Massachusetts Cultural Council and Artadia.

Stephen was kind enough to take the time to answer Prison Photography‘s questions submitted via email.

Penn State Death House Prison, Bellefonte, PA, 2003, Stephen Tourlentes

Penn State Death House Prison, Bellefonte, PA, 2003. © 2009 Stephen Tourlentes

Carson City, Nevada, Death House, 2002. Gelatin silver print. Stephen Tourlentes

Carson City, Nevada, Death House, 2002. Gelatin silver print. © 2009 Stephen Tourlentes

Blythe Prison, California. Stephen Tourlentes

Blythe Prison, California. © 2009 Stephen Tourlentes

Pete Brook. You have traveled to many states? How many prisons have you photographed in total?

Stephen Tourlentes. I’ve photographed in 46 states. Quite the trip considering many of the places I photograph are located on dead-end roads. My best guess is I’ve photographed close to 100 prisons so far.

PB. How do you choose the prisons to photograph?

ST. Well I sort of visually stumbled onto photographing prisons when they built one in the town I grew up in Illinois. It took me awhile to recognize this as a path to explore. I noticed that the new prison visually changed the horizon at night. I began to notice them more and more when I traveled and my curiosity got the best of me.

There is lots of planning that goes into it but I rely on my instinct ultimately. The Internet has been extremely helpful. There are three main paths to follow 1. State departments of corrections 2. The Federal Bureau of Prisons and 3. Private prisons.  Usually I look for the density of institutions from these sources and search for the cheapest plane ticket that would land me near them.

Structurally the newer prisons are very similar so it’s the landscape they inhabit that becomes important in differentiating them from each other. Photographing them at night has made illumination important.  Usually medium and maximum-security prisons have the most perimeter lighting.  An interesting sidebar to that is male institutions often tend to have more lighting than female institutions even if the security level is the same.

Holliday Unit, Huntsville, Texas, 2001. Gelatin silver print. Stephen Tourlentes

Holliday Unit, Huntsville, Texas, 2001. Gelatin silver print. © 2009 Stephen Tourlentes

Springtown State Prison, Oklahoma, 2003. Archival pigment print. Stephen Tourlentes

Springtown State Prison, Oklahoma, 2003. Archival pigment print. © 2009 Stephen Tourlentes

Death House Prison, Rawlins, Wyoming, 2000. Archival pigment print. Stephen Tourlentes

Death House Prison, Rawlins, Wyoming, 2000. Archival pigment print. © 2009 Stephen Tourlentes

Arkansas Death House, Prison, Grady, AK, 2007. Stephen Tourlentes

Arkansas Death House, Prison, Grady, AK, 2007. © 2009 Stephen Tourlentes

PB. Are there any notorious prisons that you want to photograph or avoid precisely because of their name?

ST. No I’m equally curious and surprised by each one I visit. There are certain ones that I would like to re-visit to try another angle or see during a different time of year. I usually go to each place with some sort of expectation that is completely wrong and requires me to really be able to shift gears on the fly.

PB. You have described the Prison as an “Important icon” and as a “General failure of our society”. Can you expand on those ideas?

ST. Well the sheer number of prisons built in this country over the last 25 years has put us in a league of our own regarding the number of people incarcerated. We have chosen to lock up people at the expense of providing services to children and schools that might have helped to prevent such a spike in prison population.

The failure is being a reactive rather than a proactive society. I feel that the prison system has become a social engineering plan that in part deals with our lack of interest in developing more humanistic support systems for society.

PB. It seems that America’s prison industrial complex is an elephant in the room. Do you agree with this point of view? Are the American public (and, dare I say it, taxpayers) in a state of denial?

ST. I don’t know if it’s denial or fear.  It seems that it is easier to build a prison in most states than it is a new elementary school. Horrific crimes garner headlines and seem to monopolize attention away from other types of social services and infrastructure that might help to reduce the size of the criminal justice system. This appetite for punishment as justice often serves a political purpose rather than finding a preventative or rehabilitative response to societies ills.

State Prison, Dannemora, NY, 2004. Stephen Tourlentes

State Prison, Dannemora, NY, 2004. © 2009 Stephen Tourlentes

Prison, Castaic, CA, 2007. Stephen Tourlentes

Prison, Castaic, CA, 2007. © 2009 Stephen Tourlentes

Federal Prison, Atwater, CA, 2007. Stephen Tourlentes

Federal Prison, Atwater, CA, 2007. © 2009 Stephen Tourlentes

Utah State Death House Complex, Draper, UT, 2002. Stephen Tourlentes

Utah State Death House Complex, Draper, UT, 2002. © 2009 Stephen Tourlentes

PB. How do you think artistic ventures such as yours compare with political will and legal policy as means to bring the importance of an issue, such as prison expansion, into the public sphere?

ST. I think artists have always participated in bringing issues to the surface through their work. It’s a way of bearing witness to something that collectively is difficult to follow. Sometimes an artist’s interpretation touches a different nerve and if lucky the work reverberates longer than the typical news cycle.

PB. In your attempt with this work to “connect the outside world with these institutions”, what parameters define that attempt a success?

ST. I’m not sure it ever is… I guess that’s part of what drives me to respond to these places. These prisons are meant to be closed systems; so my visual intrigue comes when the landscape is illuminated back by a system (a prison) that was built by the world outside its boundaries. It’s a bit like sonic feedback… maybe it’s the feedback of exile.

PB. Are you familiar with Sandow Birk’s paintings and series, Prisonation? In terms of obscuring the subject and luring the viewer in, do you think you operate similar devices in different media?

ST. Yes I think they are related. I like his paintings quite a lot.  The first time I saw them I imagined that we could have been out there at the same time and crossed paths.

PB. Many of your prints are have the moniker “Death House” in them, Explain this.

ST. I find it difficult to comprehend that in a modern civilized society that state sanctioned executions are still used by the criminal justice system. The Death House series became a subset of the overall project as I learned more about the American prison system. There are 38 states that have capital punishment laws on the books. Usually each of these 38 states has one prison where these sentences are carried out. I became interested in the idea that the law of the land differed depending on a set of geographical boundaries.

Federal Prison, Victorville, CA, 2007. Stephen Tourlentes

Federal Prison, Victorville, CA, 2007. © 2009 Stephen Tourlentes

Prison Complex, Florence, AZ, 2004. Stephen Tourlentes

Prison Complex, Florence, AZ, 2004. © 2009 Stephen Tourlentes

Lancaster State Prison, Lancaster, CA, 2007. Stephen Tourlentes

Lancaster State Prison, Lancaster, CA, 2007. © 2009 Stephen Tourlentes

PB. Have you identified different reactions from different prison authorities, in different states, to your work?

ST. The guards tend not to appreciate when I am making the images unannounced. Sometimes I’m on prison property but often I’m on adjacent land that makes for interesting interactions with the people that live around these institutions.  I’ve had my share of difficult moments and it makes sense why. The warden at Angola prison in Louisiana was by far the most hospitable which surprised me since I arrived unannounced.

PB. What percentage of prisons do you seek permission from before setting up your equipment?

ST. I usually only do it as a last resort.  I’ve found that the administrative side of navigating the various prison and state officials was too time consuming and difficult. They like to have lots of information and exact schedules that usually don’t sync with the inherent difficulty of making an interesting photograph.  I make my life harder by photographing in the middle of the night.  The third shift tends to be a little less PR friendly.

PB. What would you expect the reaction to be to your work in the ‘prison-towns’ of Northern California, West Texan plains or Mississippi delta? Town’s that have come to rely on the prison for their local economy?

ST. You know it’s interesting because a community that is willing to support a prison is not looking for style points, they want jobs. Often I’m struck by how people accept this institution as neighbors.

I stumbled upon a private prison while traveling in Mississippi in 2007. I was in Tutweiler, MS and I asked a local if that was the Parchman prison on the horizon.  He said no that it was the “Hawaiian” prison. All the inmates had been contracted out of the Hawaiian prison system into this private prison recently built in Mississippi. The town and region are very poor so the private prison is an economic lifeline for jobs.

The growth of the prison economy reflects the difficult economic policies in this country that have hit small rural communities particularly hard. These same economic conditions contribute to populating these prisons and creating the demand for new prisons. Unfortunately, many of these communities stake their economic survival on these places.

Kentucky State Death House, Prison, Eddyville, KY, 2003. Stephen Tourlentes

Kentucky State Death House, Prison, Eddyville, KY, 2003. © 2009 Stephen Tourlentes

PB. You said earlier this year (Big, Red & Shiny) that you are nearly finished with Of Lengths and Measures. Is this an aesthetic/artistic or a practical decision?

ST. I’m not sure if I will really ever be done with it.  From a practical side I would like to spend some time getting the entire body of work into a book form. I think by saying that it helps me to think that I am getting near the end.  I do have other things I’m interested in, but the prison photographs feel like my best way to contribute to the conversation to change the way we do things.

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Author’s note: Sincerest thanks to Stephen Tourlentes for his assistance and time with this article.

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Stephen Tourlentes received his BFA from Knox College and an MFA (1988) from the Massachusetts College of Art in Boston, where he is currently a professor of photography. His work is included in the collection at Princeton University, and has been exhibited at the Revolution Gallery, Michigan; Cranbook Art Museum, Michigan; and S.F. Camerawork, among others. Tourlentes has received a John Simon Guggenheim Foundation Fellowship, a Polaroid Corporation Grant, and a MacDowell Colony Fellowship.

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This interview was designed in order to compliment the information already provided in another excellent online interview with Stephen Tourlentes by Jess T. Dugan at Big, Red & Shiny. (Highly recommended!)

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