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Jon Lowenstein

This is the third and final post about Photoville. We’ve had the beginning, the middle and so now, the end.

Of the two dozen photographers in the show, only three had actual objects (Sye Williams’ darkroom prints, Jane Lindsay’s bottle caps and Deborah Luster’s tintypes). Given the cost and hassle of shipping, it was decided that the re-used Noorderlicht exhibition prints would not be returned.

I was given instructions to destroy all prints.

It occurs to me that a lot of people don’t talk about this aspect of contemporary exhibition-making. It’s not really sad to see them go, because they never belonged to anyone. They only belonged to the show. And besides, knowing they were to be destroyed, I put most of them up with double sided sticky tape, so there was no preserving them after that ultra-adhesive abuse anyway.  Super-strong magnets are hardly kind to bare prints either!

We do plan to travel Cruel and Unusual (make Hester, Noorderlicht and I an offer!) and as such we’ll see shiny versions printed again.

Until then, think on these images of photogaeddon, wanton destruction and image massacre.

Araminta de Clermont

Stephen Tourlentes

Jenn Ackerman

Steve Davis

Richard Ross

Jeff Barnett-Winsby

Tim Gruber

Yana Payusova

Lori Waselchuk

Joseph Rodriguez

Adam Shemper

Sean Kernan

Marilyn Suriani

Scott Houston

Lloyd Degrane

Harvey Finkle

Lizzie Sadin

Nathalie Mohadjer

Brenda Ann Kenneally

Alyse Emdur

This afternoon, I’ll be speaking to photography students at Evergreen State College, Olympia, WA. Instructor, Steve Davis has asked me to discuss PPOTR, regale some stories, recount my interviews.

Without doubt, Lloyd Degrane‘s story was one of the most remarkable. I have yet to edit the audio of Lloyd’s interview, but I did transcribe part of our conversation so it could be included in the Cruel & Unusual/PPOTR Newspaper. I’d like to share the text (below).

When Lloyd and I met in Chicago, he was preparing for Prison, the first ever exhibition of his prison photographs. It was at Gage Gallery (which coincidentally just showed Lori Waselchuk – another PPOTR interviewee). Gage put together an audio slideshow, which I also wanted to share (bottom).

THE BACKSTORY

Lloyd is a gentle, unassuming, older gent. He worked diligently for an entire decade (1990-2000) within three Illinois prisons – the Joliet Receiving Center, the Stateville Maximum Security Prison and Cook County Jail (the largest walled facility in the world with approximately 11,000 inmates). Degrane did this without any fuss or anything approximating self-promotion.

Before the authorities allowed him in with his camera, the Department of Corrections sent Degrane on a 600-mile round-trip to Menard Prison, a maximum-security prison in Southern Illinois. At Menard, Degrane was to just have a tour of the facilities. The warden instructed him not to take in his camera, and said that they he discuss with Degrane the proposed photography project after Degrane has taken the tour.

Due to an extraordinary experience during his prison visit, Degrane never met the warden. The extraordinary experience did, however, give Degrane a bargaining chip with which to win access to the Illinois prison system.

LLOYD’S FIRST DAY IN PRISON

I was led around Menard Prison by a guard that was just about to retire. You don’t get comfortable for some time. On the yard, you’re walking around brushing shoulders with murderers and rapists. I’d never been around people who had committed heinous crimes.

We walked into a big cell house holding several hundred inmates. As we got to the centre of the cell house a race riot broke out around us. I later found out is was African American inmates who wanted to retaliate against a white biker gang for killing one of their own several weeks before, and we were right in the middle of that retaliation. I remember yelling and threats being directed at the guard I was with. I was wearing a white shirt at the time and prisoners stopped and looked at me as if to ask, “What is this guy doing here?” I ran with the guard through a gauntlet of muscular black inmates. We made it to a cell and inside the cell was one of the oldest inmates I’d ever seen – over seventy years of age. And the guard just pushed me inside the cell. And the race riot went into high gear then. The first thing I saw was a white biker gang member being beaten by four or five black prisoners and the beating got closer and closer to the cell I was in. One of the black prisoners picked up the white biker and threw him against the bars. His head split open and he fell right at my feet. That was my initiation into maximum-security prison. I thought he was dead.

I heard over the loudspeaker system “CIVILIAN INSIDE” and I looked at the guard who was in the cell with me and he pointed at me and he said, “That’s you”. About five minutes later I heard the state police come into the cellblock with kind of this chant from the wizard of Oz. It was a chant to get everyone psyched up and strike fear into the heart of the rioting prisoners. They marched in with clubs and they were there to rescue me. They made a pathway through this insanity and extracted me from the cellblock along with the officer. They got me out of the cellblock back to the warden’s office where I picked up my camera and they just kind of pushed me out the back door.

I went to the nearest tavern and had a couple of shots of whisky. The adrenaline was just incredible, to the point where I couldn’t sit down. I’d nearly lost my life and I’d never had an experience like that before.

Later that day, I contacted the communications officer for the Illinois Department of Corrections. He knew what had happened. He said, “If you don’t talk to the media about what happened today then we’ll send you into Stateville Prison,” And so I didn’t say anything. Two weeks later I got notice from the warden at Stateville that it was okay to come in and start the project.

Lloyd DeGrane‘s work is long-term and it is honest. DeGrane would like to see more transparency surrounding American correctional facilities, “I think people, taxpayers should see what they’re getting for their money”. I came across DeGrane in James R Hugunin’s 1996 curated exhibit Discipline and Photograph.

DeGrane carried out his Prison series between 1990 and 2001, when he photographed within the state maximum security Stateville Correctional Center,  Illinois and Cook County Jail in Chicago. The three photos featured here each depict scenes at Stateville.

DeGrane took the time to discuss the role of photography in sites of incarceration, a photographer’s best approach, the names and labels given to him by inmates and images of the spaces between cells.

Did you await each photo opportunity? While working, were you alone or accompanied on the corridor or wing?

“I was usually escorted by a counselor – an unassuming, non-threatening person. Sometimes I’d go into a unit and walk around by myself, being careful not to get out of the view of a correctional officer. Stateville is a maximum security facility so some of the inmates were violent offenders. I talked to the inmates directly, sometimes going into their cells. For the most part the officials let me browse freely and talk to any inmates I wanted. Things, to a point, were pretty transparent. When I came into a unit someone would usually yell out my arrival”.

Isolation Unit, Stateville Correctional Center, 1992. Lloyd Degrane

Isolation Unit, Stateville Correctional Center, 1992. Lloyd Degrane

What is happening in the Isolation Unit photograph?

“This is the isolation unit – I called it ‘the jail within the prison’. Inmates who committed an offense in the prison were taken out of the general population and held there 23 hours a day with one hour for outside exercise. That [the display of legs and arms] was the first reaction to me being on the wing”.

“The inmates, for reasons unknown to me, thought I was a state official of some kind. But, after I got to talking with a few people independently I was able to photograph several inmates with no problems, with the exception of one inmate who would try to throw excrement at the guards”.

Lockdown Protest, Stateville Correctional Center, 1993. Llloyd Degrane

Lockdown Protest, Stateville Correctional Center, 1993. Lloyd Degrane

Explain the situation here, with the trash and food on the floor.

“That was taken in 1993. Inmates were ending a five day lock-down and totally disgusted by the lunch served (cold baloney sandwiches every day). So, they threw the servings out of their cells onto the floor. The floor of the wing is commonly known as ‘the flag’.”

“Guards eventually had to clean it up. I noticed when I came back the next week that the roach problem was severe. I had to tuck my pant legs into my socks so the roaches wouldn’t crawl up my legs”.

Protective Custody Unit, Stateville Correctional Center, 1992. Lloyd Degrane

Protective Custody Unit, Stateville Correctional Center, 1992. Lloyd Degrane

The interaction between the guard and inmate in the protective custody unit is fascinating – it melds contortion, humanity, routine and unlikely types for the prison environment.

“The inmate was in the protective custody unit. That’s a pregnant guard that’s looking at him. He didn’t have a mirror so the only way he could see what was happening outside his cell was to stick his head out of the food tray slot.”

Did the subjects of your images, specifically inmates, see the photographs after they were produced/exhibited?

“I always made a small photo for the inmates. Sometimes they got them and sometimes the warden or captain (for reasons I do not know) didn’t get around to giving them the photo. But, I was able to get a little deeper into the lives of the inmates that received photos.”

How do you work?

“The images are made slowly and carefully. No surprises. Observation and discussion with the inmates and then photos. That was my modus operandi. It’s like going into someone’s home, they know you’re there! So, it’s best to be respectfully curious. Some inmates wanted nothing to do with me (I think they had committed other crimes on the outside and didn’t want to be recognized). Other inmates didn’t mind at all. I talked with people all the time. I think taxpayers should see what they’re getting for their money. Transparency is key. But, many prison officials believe the opposite and in their facility, they rule!

Final thoughts on the prison system?

Prisons – and not correctional facilities (as the State of Illinois has named their institutions) – the concrete human warehouses behind razor wire are just that! Buildings that confine people. It’s an existential experience in a world that is both separate from America but a big part of the American economy. One sees homemade signs along Interstate 55 that read, ‘Don’t shut our prison down’, ‘Save the prison, Save our jobs’ outside Pontiac, Illinois, home to another maximum security facility that may close because of state budget cuts.

Don’t get me wrong though, some people belong in prison. I met many men who raped innocent women, killed children, beat other men to death for a few dollars and some who murdered their cellmates. I was glad that I didn’t meet them in a dark alley in Chicago. But, one thought that always went through my mind was, most of these people will get out some day. Will they change for the better or just be better criminals?

You kept an index of how the prisoners referred to you. It’s length, variety and contradictions reflect well the complexity of social experience within correctional facilities. Can you remind us of the index?

This is my index of how inmates referred to me. Picture Man, White man, The Man White Mother Fuckin’ Press Man, Black Gang Lover, Spic Gang Lover, White Prisoner Lover, Straight Dude Looking for Something – Policeman, The Photo Man, The European, The Springfield Connection, A Fair Man, An O.K. Photographer, An Artist, Homes, Homey, Fuckin’ Photographer, Homo, Fuckin’ Camera Man, The Camera Man, Inmate Lover, The Police, Friend and Cute Mother Fucker (The label given to me by Richard Speck).

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