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In 2007, Jürgen Chill‘s Zellen series won him the European Architectural Photography Prize in the “Favorite Places” category. Awarded every two years since 1995, the international prize is now organized by the nonprofit architekturbild.eV (since 2005). The 2007 jury – chaired by Hans Eberhard Hess, chief editor of Photo International magazine – was impressed by Chill’s strict central overhead perspective and chose four images.

Today, the 2009 prize winners are announced, so it seems like a good time to recall Chill’s intriguing images.

Jürgen Chill’s Zellen photographs are a unique perspective upon prison space. Of all the positions in the cell, this floating light-fixture-eye-view should be the least claustrophobic, and yet, the central (physically impossible) high vantage point is dizzying. How does the camera (let alone cameraman) take up such a position? From here, what is there left to do but fall?

Has Chill has pioneered a new photographic typology? I was fascinated by the order of each work; the order of each cell. I must presume this order is the inmates doing and not the photographers. Chill’s work is labour intensive. The reason he nor the camera falls is because each image is a stitch of over one hundred photographs, captured by a digital SLR mounted on a boom, pressed – facing downward – against the ceiling surface.

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Chill is aware that entering his work in the category ‘Favourite Places’ may seem careless or even cynical, especially as the inmates are not pictured. On the other hand, as he notes on his website, “the barren rooms of the inmates are highly individualized and at least temporary qualify as de facto ‘Favorite Places’.” In 2006 he stated:

A person’s favourite place is a place which can be chosen at will. The person’s freedom is presupposed. Freedom, however, is not granted to all. Those that do not have it must adjust to whatever opportunities exist and strive to create their own place. A cell is perhaps the smallest possible space for habitation that a person can have. Personal and functional items are all accommodated in the tightest space. The spaces are represented as they are found. The Spaces are represented as they are found. The proportions of the photographs mach those of the rooms. All details in the rooms are shown orthogonally from above, nothing has been altered.

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I contacted Jürgen via email to ask about the practicalities of making Zellen, and to secure his comments on the series concept.

Jürgen, please introduce your work.
My photographs are most like a map of the prison cells; like a Google Earth view of a landscape.  I try to communicate information about the individuals that have to live in perhaps the smallest possible space for habitation that a person can have – without showing this person himself. Personal and functional items are all accommodated in the tightest space.

I’m interested in how a person arranges personal and functional items in their small cell. And what kind of person can it be [based upon the visible evidence]? Is it possible to get a “picture” of a person by having a view of his private space? It’s a view and perspective that you normally would never get of these cells. So it is not really “real”, more a scenery set or something similar.

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Where are the cells?
The are all in Germany in big cities in the area of Nordrhein Westfalen.

Are the photographs made in the same institution?
I made 16 photographs in 6 different prisons in the cities of Bochum, Hagen, Duisburg, Gelsenkirchen, Essen and Geldern

Where were the prisoners when you took the photographs?
I had a short conversation with the prisoners in their cells; explained my project, my concept and my motivation. Some of them were really interested in my work and my kind of photography. The prisoners allowed me to spend about 45 minutes alone in their cells, while they are waited outside, in the alleyway, guarded by one or two persons from the prison.

After my work, for their permission to photograph and publish their private things and space, I gave them a small gift; a packet of coffee or cigarettes. Later I sent them all the photograph of their rooms. Some of them asked for it to have as a kind of souvenir for when they are released from prison.

How long did set up take and what equipment did you use?
Just to photograph takes about 30 minutes. With the test shoots and everything it takes about 75 minutes in one cell. The main work, the montage to one photo takes about one week. So it took a long time to make the photo series. You can see how the images were made in the youtube clip of this German television show from October, 2007.

Does the collection and order of all worldly possessions in a single space fascinate you?
It’s the combination of personal and functional items in a small space. First, the cell must contain all the functions of a house in one room: bedroom, toilet, living-room, store-room and sometimes a kitchen. Then the prisoner combines it with his personal possessions and create his private space in about 8 square metres. How does a person arrange such a small space with personal items so that it [also] keeps its basic functions ? And that arrangement exists for years. So my photographs try to draw a picture of an individual person.

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Americans, in particular, are starting to realise that they must use/waste less petrol, possessions, energy, space and give up personal largess for the benefit of community. Does the modesty of the prison cell appeal to you? Do future modes of living relate to the cell?

For me, as the artist and maker of these photographs, my intention is not to call out [to people] to give up personal largess for the benefit of community or for other kinds of social and political attitudes or activities. I just want to show the state of things in the visual of photography and try to show these things in an unusual perspective or context. Just to ask questions about it and not to give answers. That’s the viewers job.

Would you put your images into a history of visual culture that represents humans under duress and finding humanity in the smallest places/between the cracks? Or, is the Zellen series a totally modern piece, completely divided from historical context?

About historical context: I think every art work (the good ones) can not be divided from cultural and historical contexts. The Zellen series, and the new photographic series of whorehouse rooms, which I’m now working on, tells us about situations and the state of things now.

But the contemporary associations of now ( the “Zeitgeist” ) result from the past. The series Zellen was shown in a large exposition about prisons, CUSTODY/SPACES OF SURVEILLANCE in the Summer of 2008 in Frankfurt, Germany. The photographs were shown there in the historical context of humanity under surveillance; within imprisonment and [in the context of] prison architectures.

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Thanks to Jürgen for his kind help and time in piecing this article together.

All Images ©  Jürgen Chill.

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In Germany, as in most European nations, prisons often lie within towns and cities; European prisons & jails are older than the housing estates and urban developments that, ultimately, came to surround them.

In Britain, castle-like Victorian-era prisons were the dominant type until the seventies when they were replaced by draft-proof, medium-sized institutions in rural locations. Bricks and mortar made way for concrete & razor wire. That said, a few town-centre “citadels” such as Preston Prison and Lancaster Castle still operate within Her Majesty’s Prison Service, the latter dating back to the 14th century!

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In the American penal landscape, a high proportion of prisons (and all new builds) are outside of conurbations – sometimes isolated in the mountains or desert, sometimes just within grasp of a rural town to prop or establish a local economy.

Christiane Feser‘s photographs could not be mistaken as American, just as the New Topographics couldn’t be mistaken for anything but American. I don’t want to say Feser’s series Prisons is typically German, because I don’t know what that means. Instead, I will say it is typically Northern European. Feser’s photographs embody the spirit of pedantic spatial ordering which I have observed not only in Britain and Germany, but also Austria and the Netherlands.

We don’t know the specific locations of these prisons so we can not know the construction dates. Given the carceral/residential interplay we can say that if Feser’s images aren’t about the zoning of space, they are about a time before zoning dominated civic-planning.

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“When I photographed the prisons I was interested in how these prison walls are embedded in the neighbourhoods,” said Ms. Feser via email. “How the neighbours live with the walls. There are different strategies. Its a little bit complicated for me to write about it in English …” Feser’s images do the talking.

Feser’s world is one of silence, order and manicured nature. Her images evince a harmony between the prison, its neighbours and vice-versa. We witness no trauma here.

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Feser has obviously decided to omit humans from her compositions. The neighbourhoods are well tended and so presumably inhabited. One presumes the neighbourhoods are occupied daily, and yet we see no cars in driveways nor bikes on the street. Feser almost suspends belief. Are these actual places? Is this a toy-town?

Why does Feser rely on manicured topiary and brick pointing of the absent inhabitants to illustrate the “different strategies”? Is Feser suggesting a common psychology between prisoners and residents?

Have the neighbours adopted psychologies of seclusion and discipline as exist in the prison next door? Can penal strategies of control transfer by osmosis through prison walls and throughout a community? Or are certain personalities attracted to these new build estates? Are a portion of these homes reserved for prison staff? Or has Feser’s clever framing and omissions just led the viewer along these lines of inquiry?

Many would think in this peculiar carceral/residential inter-relationship the prison dominates, overbears. I doubt it. I contend those who live in such locales influence the institution also. The two agents in this relationship aren’t separate; they are drawn to one another and they overlap.

Feser uses visual devices to point toward this overlap. Angles of the oblique walls, dead ends, tended verges and brown-toned brickwork repeat through the series; sometimes these elements are part of prison fabric, sometimes part of a house.

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There exists no hierarchical coda in Feser’s images as all the surfaces are equal. One has to pay attention to figure out which architecture is carceral, and which is not. Even the barbed wire doesn’t confirm it totally as (in England at least) one commonly sees barbed wire and glass shards lining the walls of merchant-yards and back alleys.

Feser’s photographs cradle a palette of grey concrete & skies; dense greens and the browns of brick & mortar. This is Germany, but it could as easily be Lancashire housing estates, Merseyside new towns or the reclaimed industrial sites of Scottish cities.

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So how about it America? You are the land of the suburb and subdivision. You may not be familiar with a socio-spatial history that favours the awkward in-fill of urban and semi-urban space over the encroachment on to undeveloped land. It’s alright. Prisons needn’t be invisible and we needn’t be afraid. Locks and keys work as well on your street as they do in up-state, high-pain, back-water seclusion!

The location of prisons matters because when prisoners are sent to facilities on the other side of the state, families are likely to visit less. The commitment of time and money required to make such a lengthy trip usually precludes the poorest families from the essential and simple act of visiting a loved one. Research has shown the largest single factor in a prisoner successfully reentering society and not re-offending is the maintenance of family ties and the continued support it provides.

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All images © Christiane Feser. Used with permission.

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