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‘Chasing the Dragon’ © Robert Saltzman / Juan Archuleta. From the series “La Pinta: Doing Time in Santa Fe”
I’ve heard from a couple of folk that when I started Prison Photography, they laughed at its folly. Not only had a bleeding-heart liberal thug-hugger come along to explain a world no-one cared about to no-one in particular, but silly-little-leftie-me would run out of projects and photographs in no time. Not only had I picked a subject nobody cared for, I’d neglected to do the proper amount of research and maths.
Well, more than eight years later, and I’m still stumbling upon scintillating projects that challenge my ever-evolving timeline of prison-based visual arts. Case in point La Pinta: Doing Time in Santa Fe, a collaboration between Robert Saltzman and the prisoners of New Mexico State Penitentiary, in Santa Fe, NM.
© Robert Saltzman / Keith Baker. From the series “La Pinta: Doing Time in Santa Fe”
Saltzman first visited the prison in 1982 to visit a friend and thereafter was fascinated by the lives behind the walls. Despite a massive riot less than two years prior, Saltzman convinced the warden to allow him in with his 35mm SLR, three lenses and camera-mounted flash. Saltzman gave assurances he was there as an artist and not as a reporter.
Over 9 months, Saltzman made 500 images on Kodachrome64 film. He picked the 35 strongest portraits but still wasn’t happy. They failed to tell a fraction of the stories or reflect even a small slice of the range of emotions he encountered. So he printed the 35 out and mounted them on white illustration board. He sent them back in, a few at a time, with a request.
“Please use the white space however you want,” Saltzman told Popular Photography in 1985.
© Robert Saltzman / Jonathan S. Shaw. From the series “La Pinta: Doing Time in Santa Fe”. Screengrab from Google Books scan of an issue of Popular Photography (Vol. 92, No. 3, March 1985, pages 66-69 + 141, ISSN 1542-0337)
Some photographers would be happy to get in and out with some portraits and call it a day. Plaudits to Saltzman that he distanced himself enough to make a hard call about the nature of his pictures. And with it adding more time and uncertainty to the project.
28 total works came back. In the first exhibition of La Pinta: Doing Time in Santa Fe, 11 were shown. Later, 14 were exhibited.
“The drawings and writings, coupled with Saltzman’s portraits, communicate a poignant and often tension-filled commentary on the prison experience,” writes James Hugunin, art historian, expert on prison imagery and curator of a 1996 show Discipline and Photograph which included Saltzman’s work.
© Robert Saltzman / Ralph K Millam. From the series “La Pinta: Doing Time in Santa Fe”. Screengrab from Google Books scan of an issue of Popular Photography (Vol. 92, No. 3, March 1985, pages 66-69 + 141, ISSN 1542-0337)
This work excites me because it avoids easy categorisation. This type of collaborative work is standard-fare these days with a new generation of practitioners inspired by the social justice priorities of photographers like Wendy Ewald, Anthony Luvera, Eric Gottesman and many more. In the early eighties however, when Saltzman et al. made these, collaboration was considered a bit amateurish. God forbid you allow scrawls upon photographs! Pencil was meant only for contact sheets, editing and for marking crops for the darkroom. Note that among famous photographers Robert Frank made some good scrawls on his stuff in the 70s for himself and for ad campaigns in the 80s and we all know Jim Goldberg’s Rich and Poor (1977-78) was before its time and the high-profile example of a photographer handing over prints for subjects to write upon.
With the exception of Danny Lyon, all the photographers I know that preceded Robert Saltzman in photographing inside US prisons–Steven Malinowski, Gary Walrath, Joshua Freiwald, Sean Kernan, Cornell Capa, Ruth Morgan, Douglas Kent Hall, Taro Yamasaki–were invested in keeping the camera, and thus the message and interpretation, in their own hands. Given the times and the preciousness of access, it makes sense that photographers would internalise society’s general attitude toward them as special messengers. (I should flag here, as I always do, that Ethan Hoffman’s work and book Concrete Mama was exemplary of this time in terms of giving over great space for his imprisoned subjects recount their stories.)
I wouldn’t say that photographing prison guards hadn’t happened by the early eighties, but it was unusual. So for Saltzman to get the written reflections of guard Ralph K. Millam (above) is significant too. Most photography projects within prison focus on the prisoners and very few focus on both the kept and the keepers.
In short, due to both its subject matter and approach, Saltzman’s La Pinta is landmark. Prisons weren’t photographed much in the early eighties and certainly not for as long as a year, the time it took Saltzman to complete the work. Its collaborative methodology allows for heightened emotional impact and positions it ahead of other works that later used similar formulas and embodied likeminded sympathies.
See more here.
Hospital lobby. © Kim Rushing
Long before I started writing about prison imagery and before I even set foot in the United States, photographer and educator Kim Rushing was making images of the men at the infamous Parchman Farm, known officially as Mississippi State Penitentiary. Rushing made these photographs and others over a four year period (1994-1998). They recently been published by University Press of Mississippi as a book simply titled Parchman.
After a first glance at the photographs I was surprised to hear they were made in the nineties. Many images appear as if they could have been captured in much earlier decades, but such is the nature of prisons which either change at glacial pace or remain in a temporal stasis–uniforms replace identifiable fashion; hardware is from eras past; conditions can appear mid-century; and the vats of the kitchens and gas chamber seem permanently footed to the concrete foundations.
Spaghetti, central kitchen. © Kim Rushing
Gas chamber. © Kim Rushing
Rushing’s photographs are a welcome view to a past era and a brief step back in time. My overriding takeaway from the project is that time, as in all prisons, operates by its own rules.
Rushing’s contribution to the emerging visual history of American incarceration is valuable, not least because it contains some hope. Whether the absence of violence is a fair reflection of Parchman would be a worthwhile discussion but for broader research some other time. Take the images at their face value and we can identify other prevalent characteristics of prisons, namely boredom, containment, some programming, and certain longing. (I’d hazard to guess the programming such as gardening have been scaled back.)
To insist that an almost predictable perspective on prisons exists in Rushing’s work is borne out in close comparison of the work of other photographers. Rushing’s portraits are very similar to those of Adam Shemper’s made at Angola Prison, Louisiana in 2000.
Cornelius Carroll © Kim Rushing
There are also quiet echoes of David Simonton’s 4×5 photographs of Polk Youth Facility in North Carolina made in the nineties. Except in Rushing’s images prisoners inhabit the scratched, peeling interiors. Interestingly, both bodies of work remind me of Roger Ballen‘s dark worlds, but that might be a leap too far given the specific psychological manipulations by Ballen in his native South Africa.
Gregory Applewhite at window © Kim Rushing
In terms of touchstone and stated portraiture projects, I see fair comparisons with the incredible work of Ruth Morgan in San Quentin Prison, California made in the early eighties.
Billy Wallace. © Kim Rushing
And in terms of predictable moments, I cannot help but think of Ken Light’s portrait of Cameron Todd Willingham in Texas from 1994, when I view Rushing’s photo of Kevin Pack (below).
Kevin Pack watching TV. © Kim Rushing
In the book Parchman, alongside Rushing’s images are the handwritten letters of 18 prisoners–ranging in custody level from trustee to death row–who volunteered to be photographed. “What does it feel like when two people from completely different worlds look at each other over the top of a camera?” asks University Press of Mississippi. In this case, I’d argue, the successful insertion of humanity into an institution that has historically crushed the spirits of those inside. Clearly adept in his art, Rushing has made a stark and sometimes touching portrait of an invisible population.
Feeding the spider © Kim Rushing
Parchman (cloth-bound; 10 x 10 inches; 208 pages; 125 B&W photographs) is now available for $50.00 from University Press of Mississippi.
My latest for Vantage:
When Stockton filed for bankruptcy in 2012, it was the largest city in US history to do so. Kirk Crippens has spent the past three years photographing its residents.
It seems unlikely Kirk Crippens’ portraits are really going to affect the lives of the residents of Stockton, California. It is their portraits that make up his series Bank Rupture. Rather, it will be food banks, loan relief, and Stockton’s fiscal restructuring that will deliver much more direct — negative and positive — effects.
Grand statements and big claims aren’t Crippens’ style. Modest and curious, Crippens uses image-making to investigate and connect with the world. He photographs to establish relationships beyond his immediate working and daily experience. It might sound trite, but Crippens employs photography to show he cares. Having interviewed Crippens numerous times I’m confident in the claim.
“I served as witness. I immersed myself for a time and took some photographs along the way,” says Crippens.
Read the full piece and see a larger selection of images larger.
WHERE IS THE REFUGE IN A PRISON?
Where is our greatest refuge? A hideaway? Our home? The bedroom? The bed? Artist Dani Gherca reasoned that for women imprisoned in her home country of Romania, the greatest refuge was the bed.
“The bed is no only an object used for the body’s physiological and physical rest, but it’s also an intimate space for the women during the detention. The two square meters around the bed, is the only perimeter she can keep for herself,” says Gherca. “After I talked with some prisoners, I found that, in the evening, when the lights go out in the detention room … that is the only moment when each one of them can afford a really intimate moment.”
As such, Gherca made portraits of women on their beds and asked each to provide context by asking them about their thoughts during those quiet, solitary minutes. The resulting series is called Intime (2012).
I asked Gherca a few questions to provide background to Intime. We publish the female prisoners’ responses in full.
Please continue scrolling.
The night-my thoughts. The night for me, as well for the people around, represents the most quiet period, in which the soul and the mind can meditate and can realize what they’ we done bad or good during the day. The night behind bars is both sweet and bitter. The loneliness oppresses me, the distance from my family struggles me. Every night I am thinking about my child that I love and respect with all my heart; at the beautiful moments that I lost because of my mistakes. I am thinking at the moment when I will step over the threshold to freedom; at my little’s girl innocent smile and sweet hug. Every night I pray to be strong to carry out the punishment and to can be next to my child and to make it up to the period in which she stayed without me.
Q&A WITH DANI GHERCA
Prison Photography (PP): I understand the method, the aim and the outcomes of Intime, but why did you want to photograph inside a prison in the first place?
Dani Gherca (DG): The idea of intimacy is very important for me. I think that us, as human beings, we need freedom of mobility, but have also the bigger need to be able to decide when we want to be alone. The prison is an institution that hides people’s need of intimacy, an institution that limits the woman’s need for mobility.
DG: Yes, I know Cosmin and Ioana’s projects. However, I am interested to document the prison only on the conflict between privacy and this space that compels people to live together 24 hours a day.
PP: Has Targsor been photographed so much because it is relatively relaxed?
DG: Targsor Prison has a more permissive status in this kind of approach. However, I was attracted by this prison because it is the only prison for woman from Romania.
PP: What do Romanians think about prisons?
DG: In the last 3 years, the prison has become an institution that is seen as a method of revenge, mainly due to politicians who were sentenced in large numbers in this period.
PP: What do audiences think about your portraits and the prisoners’ written thoughts?
DG: The audience was more interested in the letters written by the girls. It was a new situation: to have access at the thoughts of some prisoners. Given the fact that this wasn’t an interview, the girls were more relaxed, and acted like they had written letters.
PP: Did the women talk about photography and what it gave them? Did for them? How they used it?
DG: I took them some printed photos. They send pictures home so it’s a good opportunity for them to have some portraits to send to their families. Otherwise, they cannot take pictures. Generally, I think they like to pose. It makes them feel somehow important.
PP: Thanks, Dani.
DG: Thank you, Pete.
“Of all the moderates, the most detestable is the one of the heart.” (A. Camus)
Of how much love we gathered in my soul for you, I’d be able to build the whole world and would still remain. I could build seas and oceans, the sky with billiards of stars and would still remain because my love for you doesn’t knows limits or dimensions. That’s why, I will take a little piece from my soul and a little from your love and I will build a world JUST FOR US and a sky for OUR stars to shine and an infinite ocean of love in which we can swim after the OUR sun will burn our feet after longs wanderings though cities lost in antiquity, cities of a civilization where we have our roots and have never been known, only by angles because the holy land of our love has its foundation on the last rung of the ladder that climbs to God.
Before getting here I was very happy next to my children, next to my family. I regret I am sorry that I have to stay away from my family and she suffers too for me. Now I am sitting and thinking at a more beautiful and happy with my family. To find a place to work, to take walks with the children in the park, to build them a beautiful future, to teach them only nice things, to take them to school to stay away from various kinds of crimes. I have an advice for the ones outside, for all the scholars: stay away from the entourages. The entourages will make you steal, rob. They will make you commit various kinds of crimes and is it wrong to get here. Here is a big sufferance and it’s hard to abide, to stay away from your children, from your family, it is very hard. Please think well before getting in entourages and with who will hang out.
My thoughts. I am thinking every night at my little boy and at my family to arrive as soon as possible next to them at home. Millions of thoughts and ideas that I want to do appear in my mind, but all are in vain, because I am here. I like very much to listen to music and to sit in quiet because I am a calm person. I am waiting forward for the day when I will be at home. This is the only thing that I am thinking about.
My thoughts. I am thinking every night about how I will retake my life back into a new beginning, a new life. It’s hard and very hard to retake it from the ground, but with the help of the Good God, I will succeed with everything that I passed by sufferance. I have 3 children and I am thinking every night at them and at their future, do not go through what I went through in life. Another life for them, the very best.
At night I am thinking about; my family, at the liberation, at what work place to find, night by night. I regret the day when I committed this crime, and I am thinking how to build my life so I won’t get here again, because it is very difficult to think that there is nothing more valuable than freedom.
What I’m thinking? Really, what I’m thinking? Only about the day that passed, and the day that will come…
Maybe nothing can be more beautiful and more good than to feel that what I’ve done today is better than what I did yesterday and tomorrow I will start something better. Any day is A BEGINNING for me!
My thoughts. I am thinking every night when I sit in my bed about my children and at how I will react after four years have passed day-by-day. I like listening oriental music. I like Turkish movies, the comedies.
At night, I have moments in which I can’t sleep because of the punishment and I am thinking from where I started and where I’ll finish at my day of freedom; when I will see my children after 4 years and a few months. I repent for getting in these places. Never in my life I will I commit crimes, to arrive here again. I won’t leave my children alone ever.
Dani Gherca (b.1988) lives in Bucharest and works in Romania. She holds a Bachelor of Arts degree from the Photo-Video Department, at the National University of Arts in Bucharest (2013) and a Masters of Arts from the Dynamic Image and Photography Department, at the National University of Arts in Bucharest (2015).
In the past when I have discussed prison Polaroids, I have said they are perhaps one of the more significant subsets of American vernacular photography, and that they are not easily found online and that, due to their absence, our perception of prisons and prison life continues to be skewed.
Well, times change and that position now deserves correction. I have noticed a few collections coming online recently. Not least the Polaroids from Susanville Prison on the These Americans website. (Also, check out the new PRISON subsection of the site.)
Online, I have identified some increase in the number of contemporary prison visiting room portraits and, as in the case of These Americans, collections of older, scanned images.
I would suppose that many Facebook users have scanned visiting room portraits and added them to profiles but, only visible to friends, those social network image files have not been reproduced for public consumption or commentary. We might think of Facebook photos and albums as digital versions of the mantlepiece, i.e. seen only by close friends and family.
“Prisoner-complicit” portraits (for want of a better term) are taking up a lot of my thoughts currently.
Yesterday, I had a workshop with the #PICBOD students at Coventry University, in which I assigned readings on Alyse Emdur’s visiting room portrait collection, prison cell phones as contraband, prison cell phone imagery as cultural product, a new Tumblr In Duplo that compares publicly available mugshots with publicly available Facebook profile pictures, and the racket that underpins the posting and removal of mugshots to the searchable web.
Particularly with cell-block-cell-phone images, we should anticipate a glut of prisoner-complicit photos in which prisoners – to a greater degree – self represent.
We should realise that this is the first time in modern history that prisoners have presented themselves to the internet and thus permanently to the digital networks of the globe. My hunch is that this may be significant, but really, it’s too early to tell.
We can note that in this video, most of the images seem to originate from the same cell phone camera in the same prison. We might surmise there is no epidemic of illicit and smuggled images yet. To further this inquiry, I hope to get some information from the maker of said video.
In the mean time, I’ve been in touch with Doug Rickard who administers These Americans as well as the wonder-site American Suburb X. I asked him about his recently published Susanville Prison Polaroids:
Any idea who took them? (any marks/prison-stamps on verso?)
Probably a visitor or another inmate? I have a set (10 or so) of the main inmate (“Johnny”) that you see in many of the “Susanville” single poses, posed with “Brown Sugar” (his girlfriend/wife) and his son “Champ”, a boy that grows from 1-3 years old in the various pictures (see below).
What years do you think they span?
I can only find one date, 10-24-80. You would think that they were 90’s, but for sure, it says 80.
What makes this collection so fascinating to me is that the operator(s) appears to have had free reign of cells, tiers and the yard to make these single and group portraits. One of the PICBOD students at Coventry today wondered where their supply of Polaroid film came and then to where the images were eventually dispersed outside the prison.
We could only conclude that this prisoner and his group of friends had special privileges and access. From all of my research into (vernacular) prison photography – specifically prisoner-made photography – this sort of arrangement/privilege does not exist in American prisons today.
MORE ON THESE AMERICANS
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Thanks to Peg Amison for the tip.
Natasha, Women’s Prison, 2009. © Michal Chelbin
Chelbin’s doleful portraits are striking – something different – and, of course, given their subject matter I was compelled to mention them here. However, without any specialist knowledge of the prisons in Russia and Ukraine, I struggled to think of a worthwhile statement to accompany with them. Is it enough for me just to say that work is beautiful and interesting? I don’t think so.
Therefore, this conundrum becomes the focus of this short post.
The way Chelbin describes it, her portraits are the first step on a journey (of undetermined length) to at least attempt to “know” her subjects:
“When I record a scene, my aim is to create a mixture of plain information and riddles, so that not everything is resolved in the image. Who is this person? Why is he dressed like this? What does it mean to be locked up? Is it a human act? Is it fair? Do we punish him with our eyes? Can we guess what a person’s crime is just by looking at his portrait? Is it human to be weak and murderous at the same time? My intentions are to confuse the viewer and to confront him with these questions, which are the same questions with which I myself still struggle.”
It seems to me that this the type of curiosity we should expect of all photographers and their works; it’s partly how we are drawn into the previously unknown.
But the unknown has its dangers. As Fred Ritchin stated:
“Photography too often confirms preconceptions and distances the reader from more nuanced realities. The people in the frame are often depicted as too foreign, too exotic, or simply too different to be easily understood.”
Beautiful photography is easy to come by these days, and so, for me at least, viewing beguiling portraiture becomes an act of enjoying the beauty but then stepping further and using it to get at something deeper. That might involve a dialogue with someone over coffee; it might be to find comparative examples [1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7]; it might be to read up on the conditions for juvenile prisoners in Russian prisons; it might be to read the photographer’s statement or even contact the photographer directly to seek the missing pieces.
Photographs, and particularly portraits, are often a door unlocked but often in our busy lives we don’t even try the handle.
Casey Orr‘s Comings & Goings is an inquiry into movements and migration. Comings & Goings is a photographic series in three parts. Families considers the prisoners and their loved ones at Her Majesty’s Prison Leeds, UK.
Caged Birds depict the imported pigeons and parrots and parakeets of West Yorkshire, while Migrant Women portrays the recent newcomers to Orr’s county.
Orr insists the three parts be considered together – they are a whole, cannot be separated, and toy with the idea of interconnectedness Orr has grappled with throughout her career.
Comings & Goings proposes that foreign and indigenous are not so far apart. As Orr puts it we all share “a desire to be free, an instinct to nest, to seed, to move and be alive”.
Orr’s work requires time and care to navigate – it is as delicate as it is pioneering. Prints from all three parts were displayed was on the outside walls of HMP Leeds. It was the first time the wall of a UK prison has been used as a gallery space.
I wanted to know a bit more and so emailed Casey.
Q & A
Why did you decide to incorporate H.M.P Leeds into your Comings and Goings project? Was it the subject or the challenge of working within a prison or a mixture of the two?
My photographic work makes connections to my community and to my experience of living here in Armley, Leeds. My interest in the prison came from other projects I’ve done here. I’m always looking for the connection between the things and people I photograph, the systems that operate and seem to run through everything.
The town of Armley is very much built from the systems of power that came through the Industrial Revolution; Armley Mills, once the largest mill in the world, is now the Leeds Industrial Museum; the Leeds Liverpool Canal is now used for leisure; and the incoming migrant communities are moving from their countries for very contemporary reasons, the jobs available to them (and everyone else in Leeds) having much more to do with information technology than agriculture or textiles.
Within all of this movement, stands HMP Leeds, known locally as Armley Jail. It sits on a hill, built in 1847, so that workers in the surrounding mills could be reminded of what would happen if they stepped out of line. The prison (along with a massive, imposing Victorian church) is one of the few buildings around here still used for its original purpose.
The systems of power associated with the panopticon are still firmly in use in the prison. The prison walls, inside my community, seem to be impenetrable, and enclose a community of thousands of prisoners and workers. My interest was in the walls and how to find the connection into the prison, how to link the people inside with all of the flows of life going on outside.
I found that connection through families, through children. Hundreds of families visit their fathers, sons and brothers every week. The families and loved ones are a direct link with the communities outside. I wanted to exhibit the family portraits on the outside walls of the prison because the prison walls are such a architectural staple of this community they can become invisible, people can forget about them and the people behind them. The exhibition was shown on the interior walls as well so that the people inside were seeing the same thing, the same ideas were being shared; walls penetrated by ideas, and by art.
What negotiations did you go through to gain access? Who did you meet? How did it come about?
As a documentary photographer, very little of my time is actually taking pictures, mostly I am trying to gain access to people and places. Before contacting the prison direct I talked to many people in this community and finally went to the Jigsaw Project, the family support unit. From there I met many of the workers who support the families. They were sympathetic to my ideas and introduced me to the Head of Security. From there I met the Governor. All of this took many months. The work, finally shown on the walls as a public art installation as part of the West Leeds Arts Festival in 2009, went through many security checks.
How many times did you go to the visiting room to make the portraits?
I spent a few months in the visitors centre, talking to families, and asking who would like to be a part of the project. Obviously, I got to know them better than the prisoners who I met briefly during the sessions. I spent four days in total in the visiting room.
How did the prisoners and staff respond to your project?
Most people were really supportive of the idea. the thing about photography is that it has uses on many different levels. So this record of families I wanted to make could also be a part of their personal family archive. The fact that I’m able to give something back to people, something useful, like a family portrait, makes me feel better about the fact that I’m asking so much of people, to use their image for one of my ideas. Everyone involved received copies of whichever pictures they wanted from the sessions.
Has your work dealt with systems of detention in the past?
No, my work is about systems of power, photography being very much implicated in that, in the recording and filing of people. So the prison system is always implicated in that, as are all currents of capitalist power.
I’m just completing a book about Comings & Goings and another body of work following the traces of an age old ritual lingering in the English festivity of Bonfire Night.
Casey Orr (b.1968) is originally from Pennsylvania. She has lived in England for 14 years working as a freelance photographer and Senior Lecturer at Leeds Metropolitan University.Clients include Diva Magazine, Channel 4, EMI Records, Universal Records and Sports Council England. Orr has exhibited at the University of The Arts, Philadelphia, Pa. and Jen Bekman Gallery in New York. She is the recipient of an Arts Council England grant.
Read more about Orr’s exhibition at HMP Leeds in Armley at the Guardian.