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Cell with Two Male Convicts

Two months ago, I posted about how the the roundhouse panopticon at Stateville Penitentiary in Joliet, MI had become the subject of art photographers David Leventi, Doug Dubois/Jim Goldberg and Andreas Gursky.

OLD NEWS

These famous names were preceded by anonymous inmate photographers a century previous. Nearly 200 plates from the early 20th century were found by Robert Lawson, a prisoner sentenced to six years in 1969. Lawson was “assigned as an inmate photographer in the Bureau of Identification.”

Lawson: “The B of I maintains mugshots, fingerprints, and criminal records of convicts from the early days of the prison. In a corner of the basement darkroom in a few drawers of an old filing cabinet were several hundred glass-plate negatives which documented Joliet prison around the turn of the century. I spent most of my two years working in these darkrooms, producing a blend of public relations and evidence photographs for the prison administration. The photographs were used in penal publications and were occasionally released to news agencies to illustrate the events and social progress of the prison.”

“The photographs were made by inmate photographers, although their identities still have not been determined. Prison records from 1915 indicate that there were five convicts who listed their previous occupation as photographer. Reports also document that there was a room in the prison designated as the “Photograph Gallery” and that the current warden, Edmund M. Allen, had an annual budget for photographic expenses of almost $1000, approximately three times greater than that of previous administrations.”

“These public relations photographs were taken by an anonymous series of inmate photographers under official direction. It was not necessarily their purpose to create a clear understanding of what prison is and what it does to the minds of those who live there, but it was their purpose to illustrate the progressive changes which were taking place during an era of penal reform which lasted until the beginning of World War I, when public and political attention was diverted to other areas.

[My bolding]

The collection includes Workplaces, The Grounds, Chaplin, Cells, and Mugshots. A catalogue of the images is available on eBay.

The intriguing story of historical prison photography and later discovery have been reported in publications and featured in James R. Hugunin’s, 1996 survey of prison photography, Discipline and Photograph: The Prison Experience, which is the primary academic work on the history of prison photography in public domain.

Here’s a full list of related links and the list of plates.

Fascinating stuff.

 

Cell for Female Prisoner

Chaplin with Four Inmate Assistants, ca. 1910

Thanks to Stan for the tip.

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Leventi, David - Stateville, Joliet, IL

Following my recent post of David Leventi‘s work, a reader contacted me to alert me of the potential (and presumably happenstance) development of Stateville Correctional Center, Joliet, Illinois as an art object.

Consistently through the representations of Stateville is the description of the roundhouse as one of the last remaining prisons in America adhering to the Panopticon model developed by Jeremy Bentham.

Let us be clear, the Panopticon is an outdated and abusive model for corrections; it relies on a small number controlling a large number through the threat of constant supervision. Modern correctional management must look beyond disciplinary techniques based upon spatial arrangement and look toward truly transformative (educational) engagement with prison populations.

Still one can only speculate that the roundhouse prison is of interest to artists primarily because of its “purity” of form as understood – and communicated – through the formal qualities of composition within the photographic print.

USA. Illinois. 2002. Stateville Prison. F house. There were originally four circular cell houses radiating around a central mess hall. The buildings were based on Jeremy Bentham's 1787 design for the panopticon prison house. The first round house was completed in 1919, the other three were finished in 1927. F house is the last remaining panopticon cell house. It's used for segregating inmates from the general prison population and for holding inmates who are awaiting trial or transfer. -Doug DuBois & Jim Goldberg.

In 2002, Doug Dubois, along with Jim Goldberg, went to Stateville Correctional Centre, and took a picture (above) of the prison’s interior. The New York Times later published the photograph.

A while later, Dubois found out that Andreas Gursky had too gone to Stateville, apparently inspired by Doug and Jim’s photograph and took a picture himself (below). Gursky has admitted in his career he finds ideas for images in newspapers and other popular media. Gursky’s image put in context here, at the Brooklyn Rail.

Andreas Gursky, “Stateville, Illinois” (2002), C-print mounted on Plexiglas in artist’s frame. Courtesy Matthew Marks Gallery, New York.

So, this raises questions. Has Stateville prison inadvertently become a tease, and a subject for curious photographic artists?

Do the individual activities of artists have a bearing on one another? Should these images exist within the same discourse? Do photographic attentions of the 21st century have any relation to the need and stresses of current correctional politics in Illinois?

Does the ascendancy of Stateville onto gallery walls effect any significant – or measurable – impression of Stateville prison within public consciousness?

Or are Dubois, Goldberg, Gursky and Leventi just continuing an intrigue which has continued throughout the decades?

Postcard: Stateville Penitentiary, near Joliet, Illinois (ca. 1930s).

Postcard of an American panopticon: "Interior view of cell house, new Illinois State Penitentiary at Stateville, near Joliet, Ill." Source: Scanned from the postcard collection of Alex Wellerstein. (Copyright expired.)

Postcard of an American panopticon: "Interior view of cell house, new Illinois State Penitentiary at Stateville, near Joliet, Ill." Source: Scanned from the postcard collection of Alex Wellerstein. (Copyright expired.)

Photo of guard tower in round house at Stateville. Courtesy of Illinois State Historical Library. The second state prison was authorized at Joliet in 1857. It was built by convict laborers. That 135-year-old Joliet prison still houses more than 1,100 inmates. Meanwhile, Stateville. prison, also in the Joliet area, opened for business in 1917.

Photo of guard tower in round house at Stateville. Courtesy of Illinois State Historical Library. The second state prison was authorized at Joliet in 1857. It was built by convict laborers. That 135-year-old Joliet prison still houses more than 1,100 inmates. Meanwhile, Stateville. prison, also in the Joliet area, opened for business in 1917.

Inmates at Stateville Penitentiary in 1957. (Sun-Times News Group file photo)

Inmates at Stateville Penitentiary in 1957. (Sun-Times News Group file photo)

Prison guard in a security tower, Stateville Penitentiary, Joliet, Illinois, USA. © Underwood Photo Archives / SuperStock

Prison guard in a security tower, Stateville Penitentiary, Joliet, Illinois, USA. © Underwood Photo Archives / SuperStock

Panoptic guard tower at Stateville Prison, Stateville Prison (US Bureau of Prisons, 1949, p. 70), 1940s

Panoptic guard tower at Stateville Prison, Stateville Prison (US Bureau of Prisons, 1949, p. 70), 1940s

La Fenice, Venice, Italy, 2008.

La Fenice, Venice, Italy, 2008. © David Leventi

I first saw one of David Leventi‘s Opera House prints at Exposed, the 2009 Critical Mass Top 50 exhibition at the PCNW, Seattle in March this year. To be honest, I struggled to access it. I am grateful therefore, for his interview with Sarina Finkelstein in which Leventi outlines his motivations and emotional response to these architectures. Toward the end, Leventi discusses his recent interest and move toward roundhouse prisons as subjects – and how they compare to opera houses:

“[Stateville Correctional Center, Joliet, IL] happens to be a reverse opera house. It has basically the same architectural structure as an opera house, but the difference is in who is observing who. In an opera house, the audience of many is observing a few. In a jail, it’s the reverse, giving me the opportunity as a photographer to better understand what it must feel like to be a tenor performing for a full house, albeit with a captive audience.”

Prisoners in their cells, Stateville Correctional Center, Joliet, IL, 2010. © David Leventi

Leventi adds, “I have always had stage fright. Photographing from the center of a round prison is pure anxiety. The in-mates are all yelling, jeering, talking, in cacophony. You become the center of attention and taking the photograph becomes a performance in itself.  At first, I was really intimidated, but then I blanked everything out and focused on photographing. It must be the same for the performer.”

Leventi adds that in the case of both opera houses and prisons, access is the most difficult aspect of his work. No surprise there!

All interesting stuff. I’ll be eager to see his continued progress on this subject matter. Roundhouse prisons are a rarity these days; Bentham’s Panopticon is more likely to crop up in discourses on philosophy than it is in those of criminology or correctional management.

Leventi’s images of opera houses and Stateville prison are reminiscent of some of Richard Ross’ photographs from Architecture of Authority. And, likewise, Leventi plans to look at churches and religious buildings, presumably drawing more parallels between these complete spaces.

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