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UPDATE, 05/14/2013: Harpers Books confirmed that the collection was bought by an individual at Paris Photo LA.

At Paris Photo: Los Angeles, this week, a collection of California prison polaroids were on display and up for sale. The asking price? $45,000.

The price-tag is remarkable, but so too is the collection’s journey from street fair obscurity to the prestigious international art fair. It is a journey that took only two years.

The seller at Paris Photo LA, Harper’s Books named the anonymous and previously unheard-of collection The Los Angeles Gang and Prison Photo Archive. Harper’s has since removed the item from its website, but you can view a cached version here. The removal of the item leads me too presume that it has sold. Whether that is the case or not, my intent here is not to speculate on the current price but on the trail of sales that landed the vernacular prison photos in a glass case for the eyes and consideration of the photo art world.

The Los Angeles Gang and Prison Photo Archive on display at Paris Photo LA in April, 2013.

FROM OBSCURITY TO COVETED FINE ART COMMODITY

In Spring 2012, I walked into Ampersand Gallery and Fine Books in NE Portland and introduced myself to owner Myles Haselhorst. Soon after hearing my interest in prison photographs, he mentioned a collection of prison polaroids from California he had recently acquired.

You guessed it. The same collection. Where did Myles acquire it and how did it get to Paris Photo LA?

“I bought the collection from a postcard dealer at the Portland Postcard Show, which at the time was in a gymnasium at the Oregon Army National Guard on NE 33rd,” says Haselhorst of the purchase in February, 2011.

As the postcard dealer trades at shows up and down the west coast, Haselhorst presumes that dealer had picked up the collection in Southern California.

Haselhorst paid a low four figure sum for the collection – which includes two photo albums and numerous loose snapshots totaling over 400 images.

“I thought the collection was both culturally and monetarily valuable,” says Haselhorst. “At the time, individual photos like these were selling on eBay for as much as $30 each, often times more. I bought them with the intention of possibly publishing a book or making an exhibition of some kind.”

Indeed, Haselhorst and I discussed sitting down with the polaroids, leafing through them, and beginning research. As I have noted before, prison polaroids are emerging online. I suspect this reflects a fraction of a fledgling market for contemporary prison snapshots. Not all dealers bother – or need to bother – scanning their sale items.

Haselhorst and I were busy with other ventures and never made the appointment to look over the material.

“In the end, I didn’t really know what I could add to the story,” says Haselhorst. “And, I didn’t want to exploit the images by publishing them.”

Another typical and lucrative way to exploit the images would have been to break up the collection and sell them as single lots through eBay or at fairs, but Haselhorst always thought more of the collection then the valuation he had estimated.

In January 2013, Haselhorst sold the collection in one lot to another Portland dealer, oddly enough, at the Printed Matter LA Art Book Fair.

“Ultimately, after sitting on them for more than two years, I decided they would be a perfect fit for the fair, not only because it was in LA, but also because the fair offers an unmatched cross section of visual printed matter. It was hard putting a price on the collection, but I sold them for a number well below the $45,000 mark,” he says.

Haselhorst made double the amount that he’d paid for them.

The second dealer, who purchased them from Haselhorst, quickly flipped the collection and sold it at the San Francisco Antiquarian Book Fair for an undisclosed number. The third buyer, also a dealer, had them priced at $25,000 at the recent New York Antiquarian Book Fair.

From these figures, we should estimate that Harper’s likely paid around $20,000 for the collection.


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Harper’s Books’ brief description (and interpretation) of the collection reads:

Taken between 1977 and 1993. By far the largest vernacular archive of its kind we’ve seen, valuable for the insight it provides into Los Angeles gang, prison, and rap cultures. The first photo album contains 96 Polaroid photographs, many of which have been tagged (some in ink, others with the tag etched directly into the emulsion) by a wide swath of Los Angeles gang members. Most of the photos are of prisoners, with the majority of subjects flashing gang signs.

[…]

The second album has 44 photos and images from car magazines appropriated to make endpapers; the “frontispiece” image is of a late 30s-early 40s African-American woman, apparently the album-creator’s mother, captioned “Moms No. 1. With a Bullet for All Seasons.”

[…]

In addition, 170 loose color snapshots and 100 loose color Polaroids dating from 1977 through the early 1990s.

In my opinion, the little distinction Harper’s makes between gang culture and rap music culture is offensive. The two are not synonymous. This is an important and larger discussion, but not one to follow here in this article.

HOW SIGNIFICANT A COLLECTION IS THIS?

Harper’s is right on one thing. The newly named ‘Los Angeles Gang and Prison Photo Archive’ is a unique collection. Never before have I seen a collection this large. Visually, the text etched directly into the emulsion is a captivating feature of many of the polaroids.

We have seen plenty of vernacular prison photographs from the 19th and early to mid 20th century hit the market. Recently, a collection of 710 mugshots from the San Francisco Police Department made in the 1920’s sold twice within short-shrift. First for $2,150 in Portland, OR and then for $31,000 in New York just four months later! At the time of the sale, AntiqueTrader.com suggested it “may [have] set new record for album of vernacular photography.”

As a quick aside, and for the purposes of thinking out loud, might it be that polaroids that reference Southern California African American prison culture are – in the eyes of collectors and cultural-speculators – as exotic, distant and mysterious as sepia mugshots of last century? How does thirty years differ to one hundred when it comes to mythologising marginalised peoples? Does the elevation of gang ephemera from the gutter to traded high art mean anything? I argue, the market has found a ripe and right time to romanticise the mid-eighties and in particular real-life figures from the era that resemble the stereotypes of popular culture. It is in some ways a distasteful exploitation of people after-the-fact. Perhaps?

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WHERE DOES THE $45,000 PRICE-TAG COME FROM?

Just because the so-called ‘Los Angeles Gang and Prison Photo Archive’ is rare, doesn’t mean similar collections do not exist, it may just mean they have not hit the market. This is, I argue, because no market exists … until now.

If the price tag seems crazy, it’s because it is. But consider this: one of the main guiding factors for valuations of art is previous sales of similar items. However, in the case of prison polaroids, there is no real discernible market. Harper’s is making the market, so they can name their price.

“All in all, it’s pretty crazy,” says Haselhorst, “especially when you think about how I bought it here in Portland over on 33rd, just a few miles from our gallery.”

All these details probably make up only the second chapter of this object’s biography. The first chapter was their making and ownership by the people in the photographs. Later chapters will be many. Time will tell whether later chapters will be attached to astronomical figures.

Harper’s suggests that rich “narrative arcs might be uncovered by careful research.” I agree. And these are importatn chapters to be written too.

I hope that more of these types of images with their narratives will emerge. If these types of vernacular prison images are to command larger and larger figures in the future, I hope that those who made them and are depiction therein make the sales and make the cash.

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As it stands the speculation and rapid price increases, can be interpreted as easily as crass appropriation as it can connoisseurship. If these images deserve a $45,000 price tag, they deserve a vast amount of research to uncover the stories behind them. Who knows if the (presumed) new owner has the intent or access to the research resources required?

Along that same vein, here we identify a difference between the art market and the preservationists; between free trade capitalism and the efforts of museums, historians and academics; between those that trade rare items and those that are best equipped to do the research on rare items.

Whether speculative or accurate, the $45,000 price is way beyond the reach of museums. Photography and art dealers who are limber by comparison to large, immobile museums are working the front lines of preservation.

“Some might say that selling [images such as these] is exploitation, but a dealer’s willingness to monotize something like this is one form of cultural preservation,” argues Haselhorst. “If I had not been in a position to both see the collection’s significance and commodify it, albeit well below the final $45,000 mark, these photographs could have easily ended up in the trash.”

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Loose Polaroids from the Los Angeles Gang and Prison Photo Archive as displayed by Harper’s Books at Paris Photo LA, Los Angeles, April, 2013.

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A cover to one of the two albums that make up the Los Angeles Gang and Prison Photo Archive.

In 2005, Alyse Emdur unearthed a photograph (above) of her visiting her older brother in prison. She recalls, even as a 5 year old, her confusion and discomfit with the tropical beach scene to her back.

To Alyse, these garishly coloured corners of the prison visiting rooms are analogous with commercial photo portrait studios, “If you weren’t familiar with prisons, you might think these were prom photos or made in community centres. They’re very ambiguous,” says Alyse.

Fascinated by the obscure and closeted mural works in prisons across the U.S., Alyse meditated upon them in her MFA grad show (she even commissioned a prison artist to paint a mural on parachute canvas). She is now bringing hundreds of authentic American prison visiting room portraits from her Prison Landscapes project together in a book to be released later this year.

Alyse contacted over 300 prisoners via prison penpal and dating websites. Just over 150 agreed to be part of the project.

In the past, I’ve argued that visiting room portraits may constitute the largest type of American vernacular photography not seen by the majority public. I’ve also noted how companies will manipulate these portraits and, at the request of the owner, photoshop out the prison environment. Photoshop “services” such as these are the post-production equivalent of the denial existent in the original works.

If these idyllic landscapes are about escape it might not just be in an emotional sense, “They are a security feature,” says Alyse. “The backdrops are there to control the type of imagery that is being exported out of the institution. To be specific, the administration doesn’t want images of the inside of the prison to circulate outside of the prison because the thinking is that those images could help an inmate escape. That’s what makes these images slippery and interesting; they also create an escape for the poser and for the [family member] who receives the photo.”

How or why does this discussion matter? Well, essentially these are images about control. Cameras are considered a security hazard by prison authorities. Prisoners have no opportunity to self-represent (bar some very exceptional prison photo workshops). After their mugshot, these visiting room portraits are the only chance America’s 2.3 million prisoners have to achieve something that approximates self-representation. These are highly mediated images and they are often a performance that belies the hardship of prison life.

Alyse and I talk about the regionalism of the backdrop murals; the dearth of research on this quirky and hidden aspect of American visual culture; and Alyse notes how the artistry of mural painting is disappearing as acrylic and enamel paint is replaced by large photo-printed screens.

LISTEN TO OUR DISCUSSION ON THE PRISON PHOTOGRAPHY PODBEAN PAGE

Alyse Emdur (b. NJ, USA 1983) works with photography, video, research, social engagement, and drawing. Her work has been exhibited at Printed Matter and the Lambent Foundation in New York; the University of Texas Visual Arts Center in Austin; Bezalel University in Tel Aviv, Israel; the Lab in San Francisco; La Montagne Gallery in Boston; Laura Bartlett Gallery in London, England; Spacibar in Oslo, Norway; In Situ in Paris, France, and Kunststichting Artis in Hertogenbosch, Netherlands.

In Spring 2012, a book of her project Prison Landscapes will be published by Four Corners Books (London).

Download an interview with Niels Van Tomme published in the Fall 2011 Issue of Art Papers Magazine, here (PDF)

Download an excerpt of Prison Landscapes published in Issue 37 of Cabinet Magazine, here (PDF)

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Aside the Coca-cola vending machines and Cheetos, portraits and photo-keepsakes are probably the most ubiquitous objects in prison visiting rooms.

I have speculated before about a massive, dispersed collection-without-walls made up of the millions of prison Polaroids; a sprawling, bittersweet and neglected vernacular photo-archive of true American experience.

Polaroid cameras are still the standard for prison visiting rooms as they provide instant results and they don’t have the “security issues” associated with he transferability of digital files. No matter the format, Friends Beyond the Walls will help construct your photo-idyll:

Through the use of digital technology, Composite Magic brings you, your family and loved one(s) together in an exciting new way, featuring dozens of the most beautiful full-color dramatic background locations that make ALL the difference!

Just send us your favorite Polaroid or 35mm snapshot … We’ll take your image out of those prison photo backgrounds, and place you and yours “inside” the romantic or exotic location that has previously been outside your reach!

No more explaining where the photos were taken!

Some companies simply “paste” your image on a photo background. For the most realistic and unique effect, Photos Beyond The Wall specializes in placing you “inside” the photo! See how the Composite Magic process works! ESCAPE from the confines of those boring “click click” backgrounds, and be released to the free world … right into the photo location of your choice!

There is plenty of scope here to pour scorn upon the low-brow photo-manipulation, and there is (justifiable) reason to question the financial gains of the company involved in providing such a basic service, but I won’t go there.

People aren’t stupid. They won’t invest their emotions in “Composite Magic” if they don’t want to. But if someone does make use of this service then so be it – we all spend silly money on items foreign and bizarre to one another.

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I will say this: prisoners and their families develop fast and hardened interactions with correctional authority. The procedures of the visit become as routine as picking up the paper or grabbing a morning coffee. It makes sense that some of that population would take the opportunity to leave that dictated reality behind and reclaim (visual) identifiers that don’t belong to  departments of corrections and criminal justice.

Therefore, the only real way to discuss this niche photo-aesthetic and grow a legitimate appreciation would be to talk to the sitters, consumers and owners of this niche photo-aesthetic. That could be the territory for anthropologists and sociologists or, as easily, it could be the chatter of ordinary people who still take an interest in other ordinary people.

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