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How can images tell the story of mass incarceration when the imprisoned don’t have control over their own representation? This is the question Dr. Nicole R. Fleetwood asks as editor of the latest Aperture (Spring 2018).

Prison Nation” can be ordered online today and hits the news-stands next week. Devoted to prison imagery and discussion of mass incarceration, the issue presents a slew of works across contrasting genres — landmark documentary by Bruce JacksonJoseph Rodriguez and Keith Calhoun & Chandra McCormick; luscious and uncanny portraits by Jack Lueders-Booth, Deborah Luster and Jamel Shabazz; insider images from Nigel PoorLorenzo Steele, Jr. and Jesse Krimes; and contemporary works by Sable Elyse Smith, Emily Kinni, Zora Murff, Lucas Foglia and Stephen Tourlentes.

Equally exciting is the banger roster of thinkers contributing essays, intros and conversations — including Mabel O. Wilson, Shawn Michelle Smith, Christie Thompson, Jordan Kisner, Zachary Lazar, Rebecca Bengal, Brian WallisJessica Lynne, Reginald Dwayne Betts, Ruby Tapia, Zarinah Shabazz, Brian Stevenson, Sarah LewisHank Willis Thomas and Virginia Grise.

I have an essay ‘Prison Index’ included which looks back on almost a decade of this Prison Photography website–how it began, what it has done and what it has become. I highlight a dozen-or-so photographers’ works that are not represented by features in the issue itself. I wonder how PP functions as an archive and what role it serves for public memory and knowledge.

MATCHING QUALITY CONTENT WITH QUALITY DESIGN

I’ve known for years that Prison Photography requires a design overhaul. This past week, I’ve moved forward with plans for that. It goes without saying that the almost-daily blogging routine of 2008 with which Prison Photography began has morphed into a slower publishing schedule. There’s a plethora of great material on this website but a lot of it is buried in the blog-scroll format. My intention is to redesign PP as more of an “occasionally-updated archive” whereby the insightful interviews from years past are drawn up to the surface.

It’s time to make this *database* of research more legible and searchable. Clearly, as this Aperture issue demonstrates, the niche genre of prison photographs is vast and it demands a more user-friendly interface for this website. I’m proud to be included in “Prison Nation” but know it’s a timely prod to develop Prison Photography’s design and serve the still-crucial discussions.

 

 

Get your copy of Aperture, Issue 230 “Prison Nation” here.

Thanks to the staff at Aperture, especially Brendan Wattenberg and Michael Famighetti for ushering and editing the piece through.

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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

The goodies just keep rolling in. Shame they aren’t shifting as quick as the smaller level funding incentives. So while this print is amazing and I want it myself, I must encourage any of you with big “photography collector friends” to pay the Prison Photography on the Road Kicksarter page. They might just get a bargain!

If you want to know more about Stephen’s work and motivations see The Feedback of Exile, an interview we did a couple of years ago.

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Photographer: Stephen Tourlentes
Title: Comstock, NY State Prison
Year: 2009
Print: 11″x14″ B&W, Archival Pigment Print
Aritist’s Proof, Signed

Print PLUS, self-published book, postcard and mixtape = $500 – BUY NOW

Comstock, NY State Prison. © Stephen Tourlentes

Tom Griggs, the man at the helm at Fototazo has just published an interview with Stephen Tourlentes.

Aware of two earlier interviews with Tourlentes by Jess T. Dugan and myself, Griggs proposed he stitch information from those together with new questions and answers to fill the gaps and bring the reader up to date. The result is a very comprehensive, crowdsourced Q&A about Tourlentes’ photography and politics.

“[We must] find better ways to deal with poverty, education and human rights. The prison system in the US has grown at the expense of funding education, public health and investing long term in sustainable community initiatives that combat crime.”

“In my view we have an extremely complicated history in the US. Contradictions abound. Along with brilliant success and economic power we have built a prison system that holds 24% of the world prison population even though the US represents only 5% of the worlds population. In a country that holds it’s constitutional freedoms so dear we are the best in the world at locking people up.”

FOTOTAZO

Fototazo is a new philanthropic venture on the block. It raises funds to purchase equipment for young, emerging photographers from economically disadvantaged backgrounds from around the globe.

Fototazo will snag your interest with in-depth interviews and portfolios of new work by selected contemporary photographers. Hopefully, you’ll reciprocate with some spare change for the grants, the monies of which go to those building careers in photography and whose development is limited by an inability to purchase necessary equipment.

Currently, 21 year old Colombian, Natalia Lopera is requesting a Nikon d3100 to replace her analog camera that has developed focusing problems.

© Natalia Lopera

Prison, Castaic, CA, 2007. Stephen Tourlentes

Stephen Tourlentes‘ work is without doubt one of the most significant photographic responses to American landscape. If Ansel Adams had lived in an era of mass incarceration, I am certain the discard of persons, nature and sustainability in prisons would have captured his activist streak as much as that of our beloved National Parks.

Eighteen months ago, I interviewed Tourlentes, and that contribution to photographic discourse remains one of my proudest moments. Recently, Tourlentes launched his own website.

His work is of yesterday, for today and hopefully of a changed future.

The nocturnal glow of prisons is his subject; it is a subject we own and the weight of its injustices is ours. Across States, we voted for the mass warehousing of human lives. Tourlentes’ prison-scapes capture the “feedback of exile.”

Thirty years ago, Tourlentes would have no subject, but today he presents us with the spectres of our sprawling and unforgiving prison industrial complex. Glowing bright at night, he shows us sites usually lost on the horizon in daytime heat and haze.

Tourlentes has photographed many different prisons, but has now focused his series on the institutions of that accommodate the State execution chamber –  he refers to these prisons as “death houses”. Many new (and superior) works are included in his newly presented portfolio. Tourlentes calls the project Of Lengths and Measures:

These institutions tend to sit on the periphery of a society’s consciousness. Many older prisons are situated in towns or along rivers and reflect the use of the land at the time of their construction. By comparison newly opened “Super Max” prisons utilize modern high technology to control their population and offers an updated contrast to the stone castles that preceded them. The rapid construction of new prisons is a result of overcrowding caused by tough new sentencing laws, as well as an economic program to help depressed communities that vie to host them. The land that these prisons sit on is never allowed to go dark. The use of light and surveillance technology has changed the architecture of confinement.  The tools of electronic surveillance and computer technology are used as the new keys inside the modern corrections system.

© Nico Bick

I just received an email from FOTODOK who present this month State of Prison, an exhibition with work of Nico Bick (The Netherlands), Carl de Keyzer (Belgium) and Mathieu Pernot (France). Also included – I am proud to say – are two photographers I’ve interviewed for Prison PhotographyStephen Tourlentes (United States) and Jürgen Chill (Germany).

© Jurgen Chill

FOTODOK statement:

“Photographing official institutions such as schools, government buildings, prisons and old people’s homes often goes hand-in-hand with limitations. PR and communication departments conscientiously guard their image and impose restrictions on photographers.”

“Even so, photographers still succeed in making individual and meaningful series in these places that go further than PR photos. From surreally painted Siberian prison camps to screaming family members outside the prison walls.”

© Mathieu Pernot

Federal Prison, Atwater, CA, 2007. © Stephen Tourlentes

The curator is photographer Raimond Wouda (The Netherlands) who himself has taken a look at the impression of institutional architecture upon its users, most notably the social spaces of Dutch high schools.

Throughout 2009, Raimond Wouda reported on his research on FOTODOK’s website. This process and all the findings of the past year have been compiled into a collection of words and images. The publication will be presented during the opening. I’d love to get my hands on that!

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The exhibition runs from the 26th March to the 25th April 2010. An opening will held this week at 19.30pm on the 25th March at Van Asch van Wijckskade 28, Utrecht (map).

From the ZONA series. © Carl de Keyzer

Alabama Death House Prison, 2004. Silver print photograph. Stephen Tourlentes

Alabama Death House Prison, Grady, AL, 2004. Silver print photograph. © 2009 Stephen Tourlentes

Stephen Tourlentes photographs prisons only at night for it is then they change the horizon. Social division and ignorance contributed to America’s rapid prison growth. Tourlentes’ lurking architectures are embodiments of our shared fears. In the world Tourlentes proposes, light haunts; it is metaphor for our psycho-social fears and denial. Prisons are our bogeyman.

These prisons encroach upon our otherwise “safe” environments. Buzzing with the constant feedback of our carceral system, these photographs are the glower of a collective and captive menace. Hard to ignore, do we hide from the beacon-like reminders of our social failures, or can we use Tourlentes’ images as guiding light to better conscience?

Designed as closed systems, prisons illuminate the night and the world that built them purposefully outside of its boundaries. “It’s a bit like sonic feedback … maybe it’s the feedback of exile,” says Tourlentes.

Stephen Tourlentes has been photographing prisons since 1996. His many series – and portfolio as a whole – has received plaudits and secured funding from organisations including the John Simon Guggenheim Foundation, the Massachusetts Cultural Council and Artadia.

Stephen was kind enough to take the time to answer Prison Photography‘s questions submitted via email.

Penn State Death House Prison, Bellefonte, PA, 2003, Stephen Tourlentes

Penn State Death House Prison, Bellefonte, PA, 2003. © 2009 Stephen Tourlentes

Carson City, Nevada, Death House, 2002. Gelatin silver print. Stephen Tourlentes

Carson City, Nevada, Death House, 2002. Gelatin silver print. © 2009 Stephen Tourlentes

Blythe Prison, California. Stephen Tourlentes

Blythe Prison, California. © 2009 Stephen Tourlentes

Pete Brook. You have traveled to many states? How many prisons have you photographed in total?

Stephen Tourlentes. I’ve photographed in 46 states. Quite the trip considering many of the places I photograph are located on dead-end roads. My best guess is I’ve photographed close to 100 prisons so far.

PB. How do you choose the prisons to photograph?

ST. Well I sort of visually stumbled onto photographing prisons when they built one in the town I grew up in Illinois. It took me awhile to recognize this as a path to explore. I noticed that the new prison visually changed the horizon at night. I began to notice them more and more when I traveled and my curiosity got the best of me.

There is lots of planning that goes into it but I rely on my instinct ultimately. The Internet has been extremely helpful. There are three main paths to follow 1. State departments of corrections 2. The Federal Bureau of Prisons and 3. Private prisons.  Usually I look for the density of institutions from these sources and search for the cheapest plane ticket that would land me near them.

Structurally the newer prisons are very similar so it’s the landscape they inhabit that becomes important in differentiating them from each other. Photographing them at night has made illumination important.  Usually medium and maximum-security prisons have the most perimeter lighting.  An interesting sidebar to that is male institutions often tend to have more lighting than female institutions even if the security level is the same.

Holliday Unit, Huntsville, Texas, 2001. Gelatin silver print. Stephen Tourlentes

Holliday Unit, Huntsville, Texas, 2001. Gelatin silver print. © 2009 Stephen Tourlentes

Springtown State Prison, Oklahoma, 2003. Archival pigment print. Stephen Tourlentes

Springtown State Prison, Oklahoma, 2003. Archival pigment print. © 2009 Stephen Tourlentes

Death House Prison, Rawlins, Wyoming, 2000. Archival pigment print. Stephen Tourlentes

Death House Prison, Rawlins, Wyoming, 2000. Archival pigment print. © 2009 Stephen Tourlentes

Arkansas Death House, Prison, Grady, AK, 2007. Stephen Tourlentes

Arkansas Death House, Prison, Grady, AK, 2007. © 2009 Stephen Tourlentes

PB. Are there any notorious prisons that you want to photograph or avoid precisely because of their name?

ST. No I’m equally curious and surprised by each one I visit. There are certain ones that I would like to re-visit to try another angle or see during a different time of year. I usually go to each place with some sort of expectation that is completely wrong and requires me to really be able to shift gears on the fly.

PB. You have described the Prison as an “Important icon” and as a “General failure of our society”. Can you expand on those ideas?

ST. Well the sheer number of prisons built in this country over the last 25 years has put us in a league of our own regarding the number of people incarcerated. We have chosen to lock up people at the expense of providing services to children and schools that might have helped to prevent such a spike in prison population.

The failure is being a reactive rather than a proactive society. I feel that the prison system has become a social engineering plan that in part deals with our lack of interest in developing more humanistic support systems for society.

PB. It seems that America’s prison industrial complex is an elephant in the room. Do you agree with this point of view? Are the American public (and, dare I say it, taxpayers) in a state of denial?

ST. I don’t know if it’s denial or fear.  It seems that it is easier to build a prison in most states than it is a new elementary school. Horrific crimes garner headlines and seem to monopolize attention away from other types of social services and infrastructure that might help to reduce the size of the criminal justice system. This appetite for punishment as justice often serves a political purpose rather than finding a preventative or rehabilitative response to societies ills.

State Prison, Dannemora, NY, 2004. Stephen Tourlentes

State Prison, Dannemora, NY, 2004. © 2009 Stephen Tourlentes

Prison, Castaic, CA, 2007. Stephen Tourlentes

Prison, Castaic, CA, 2007. © 2009 Stephen Tourlentes

Federal Prison, Atwater, CA, 2007. Stephen Tourlentes

Federal Prison, Atwater, CA, 2007. © 2009 Stephen Tourlentes

Utah State Death House Complex, Draper, UT, 2002. Stephen Tourlentes

Utah State Death House Complex, Draper, UT, 2002. © 2009 Stephen Tourlentes

PB. How do you think artistic ventures such as yours compare with political will and legal policy as means to bring the importance of an issue, such as prison expansion, into the public sphere?

ST. I think artists have always participated in bringing issues to the surface through their work. It’s a way of bearing witness to something that collectively is difficult to follow. Sometimes an artist’s interpretation touches a different nerve and if lucky the work reverberates longer than the typical news cycle.

PB. In your attempt with this work to “connect the outside world with these institutions”, what parameters define that attempt a success?

ST. I’m not sure it ever is… I guess that’s part of what drives me to respond to these places. These prisons are meant to be closed systems; so my visual intrigue comes when the landscape is illuminated back by a system (a prison) that was built by the world outside its boundaries. It’s a bit like sonic feedback… maybe it’s the feedback of exile.

PB. Are you familiar with Sandow Birk’s paintings and series, Prisonation? In terms of obscuring the subject and luring the viewer in, do you think you operate similar devices in different media?

ST. Yes I think they are related. I like his paintings quite a lot.  The first time I saw them I imagined that we could have been out there at the same time and crossed paths.

PB. Many of your prints are have the moniker “Death House” in them, Explain this.

ST. I find it difficult to comprehend that in a modern civilized society that state sanctioned executions are still used by the criminal justice system. The Death House series became a subset of the overall project as I learned more about the American prison system. There are 38 states that have capital punishment laws on the books. Usually each of these 38 states has one prison where these sentences are carried out. I became interested in the idea that the law of the land differed depending on a set of geographical boundaries.

Federal Prison, Victorville, CA, 2007. Stephen Tourlentes

Federal Prison, Victorville, CA, 2007. © 2009 Stephen Tourlentes

Prison Complex, Florence, AZ, 2004. Stephen Tourlentes

Prison Complex, Florence, AZ, 2004. © 2009 Stephen Tourlentes

Lancaster State Prison, Lancaster, CA, 2007. Stephen Tourlentes

Lancaster State Prison, Lancaster, CA, 2007. © 2009 Stephen Tourlentes

PB. Have you identified different reactions from different prison authorities, in different states, to your work?

ST. The guards tend not to appreciate when I am making the images unannounced. Sometimes I’m on prison property but often I’m on adjacent land that makes for interesting interactions with the people that live around these institutions.  I’ve had my share of difficult moments and it makes sense why. The warden at Angola prison in Louisiana was by far the most hospitable which surprised me since I arrived unannounced.

PB. What percentage of prisons do you seek permission from before setting up your equipment?

ST. I usually only do it as a last resort.  I’ve found that the administrative side of navigating the various prison and state officials was too time consuming and difficult. They like to have lots of information and exact schedules that usually don’t sync with the inherent difficulty of making an interesting photograph.  I make my life harder by photographing in the middle of the night.  The third shift tends to be a little less PR friendly.

PB. What would you expect the reaction to be to your work in the ‘prison-towns’ of Northern California, West Texan plains or Mississippi delta? Town’s that have come to rely on the prison for their local economy?

ST. You know it’s interesting because a community that is willing to support a prison is not looking for style points, they want jobs. Often I’m struck by how people accept this institution as neighbors.

I stumbled upon a private prison while traveling in Mississippi in 2007. I was in Tutweiler, MS and I asked a local if that was the Parchman prison on the horizon.  He said no that it was the “Hawaiian” prison. All the inmates had been contracted out of the Hawaiian prison system into this private prison recently built in Mississippi. The town and region are very poor so the private prison is an economic lifeline for jobs.

The growth of the prison economy reflects the difficult economic policies in this country that have hit small rural communities particularly hard. These same economic conditions contribute to populating these prisons and creating the demand for new prisons. Unfortunately, many of these communities stake their economic survival on these places.

Kentucky State Death House, Prison, Eddyville, KY, 2003. Stephen Tourlentes

Kentucky State Death House, Prison, Eddyville, KY, 2003. © 2009 Stephen Tourlentes

PB. You said earlier this year (Big, Red & Shiny) that you are nearly finished with Of Lengths and Measures. Is this an aesthetic/artistic or a practical decision?

ST. I’m not sure if I will really ever be done with it.  From a practical side I would like to spend some time getting the entire body of work into a book form. I think by saying that it helps me to think that I am getting near the end.  I do have other things I’m interested in, but the prison photographs feel like my best way to contribute to the conversation to change the way we do things.

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Author’s note: Sincerest thanks to Stephen Tourlentes for his assistance and time with this article.

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Stephen Tourlentes received his BFA from Knox College and an MFA (1988) from the Massachusetts College of Art in Boston, where he is currently a professor of photography. His work is included in the collection at Princeton University, and has been exhibited at the Revolution Gallery, Michigan; Cranbook Art Museum, Michigan; and S.F. Camerawork, among others. Tourlentes has received a John Simon Guggenheim Foundation Fellowship, a Polaroid Corporation Grant, and a MacDowell Colony Fellowship.

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This interview was designed in order to compliment the information already provided in another excellent online interview with Stephen Tourlentes by Jess T. Dugan at Big, Red & Shiny. (Highly recommended!)

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