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I wouldn’t describe Melania Comoretto‘s portfolio Women in Prison as portraiture; it’s bigger, it’s emotional landscape.

Comoretto’s work tinged with sadness, possibly even resignation. Their circumstance may have dulled outward looking expectancy.

This work stands out, for me personally, as one of the finest photographic documents of women prisoners, globally. Women in Prison is charming and disarming. These are women whose words would likely shock us and yet they seem to know the weight of their own stories and captive futures. The reticence of Comoretto’s subjects, paired with the arresting gaze (when given), is a triumph.

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Q&A

Where is this prison?

I photographed in two Italian prisons in Rebibbia and Trapani.

Why did you do a project there?

I wanted to investigate and understand how women could express their femininity and take care of their body in a situation of extreme marginalization.

The starting idea was to reflect the mental and psychological labyrinths and internal prisons that prevent human beings from living their lives freely. I asked myself, “What could be the extreme expression of this idea?” The answer; Prison.

What were the women’s lives like? Was their prison experience positive or negative?

The way the women live in prison depend on the prison in itself and how it is organised. It also depends on the personality and psychological attitude of the woman.

Most of them fall into depression; others react in a very active way. The body is the mirror of that. The more a women fall into depression the more she forget to take care of her body, that was the reason why I decided to focus on bodies and femininity.

Where are the women now?

Most of the women are still in Rebibbia and Trapani prisons. I shot this series of photos only in the last 10 months.

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Were the women good portrait subjects? Did they want to be photographed?

They were very willing to speak and to be portrayed! They liked to spent time with me. They rarely have the chance to speak with someone who wants to listen deeply their stories.

Did they see your photograph prints?

I sent them each contact sheets.

In Italy what is society’s attitude toward prisoners and, specifically, female prisoners?

Unfortunately, in every city and country of the world, the social attitude towards prisoners is not very open-minded. They [societies] focus on the fact that prisoners are guilty and rarely on the fact that (in the majority of cases) that they had no chance because their lives started in very tragic conditions. Without any help it is very difficult for prisoners to change their destiny.

What was your experience on the project?

I understand how in some situations life does not leave you many chances to change.

Can the camera be a tool for rehabilitation?

I deeply believe it is. I don’t know if photography could be a tool of rehabilitation for the women. For me it was and is … so maybe [the camera] could be for them and for many other people. It prevents me from destroying myself and I believe it could have the same advantage for many other people!

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Woman in cell, playing solitaire. ca. 1950. Nickolas Muray. Transparency, chromogenic development (Kodachrome) process. George Eastman House Collection - Accession # 1983:0567:0151

Woman in cell, playing solitaire. ca. 1950. Nickolas Muray. Transparency, chromogenic development (Kodachrome) process. George Eastman House Collection - Accession # 1983:0567:0151

I was blown away last month when the indicommons feed landed Nickolas Muray’s colour commercial photography on my desktop. Muray’s commercial work is fresh, witty, a sock in the eye and an all round feast of fun. The fact I haven’t any knowledge ofi the advertised products makes my enjoyment all the more visuocentric and naive. And that’s okay … every so often.

Pop music sprouted in the fifties, right about when this image was taken. I have Alma Cogan playing in my mind as I browse Muray’s commercial kodachrome prints. Visually, Woman in Cell, Playing Solitaire is an alterworld mash-up of Jehad Nga and Edward Hopper. Don’t you just dig those colours? None of the psychological edge though; the lady, despite being locked up, hardly looks harassed or without hope. Rather, she looks bored.

To continue the fest of technicolour, let me include the image below. Admittedly, it stretches the theoretical parameters of this blog but I would argue the subject is relevant. Depicted is the harsh subjugation of fowl to sites of incarceration – evidenced by the chicken wire and possibly even the girl’s well-disguised, maniacal grasp of the hat!

American Cyanamid Girl with Straw Hat Full of Chicks, 1947. Nickolas Muray. Color print, Assembly (Carbro) Process. George Eastman House. Accession # 1971:0048:0017.

American Cyanamid Girl with Straw Hat Full of Chicks, 1947. Nickolas Muray. Color print, Assembly (Carbro) Process. George Eastman House. Accession # 1971:0048:0017.

To end on a serious note, I knew of the exceptional George Eastman House collection, but was frequently frustrated by the archaic platform of its website. Browsing was not fun. To GEH’s credit they recognised this enfeeblement and avidly committed important works to the Flickr Commons project. Kudos to them. We are all the better for it! I am just happy an image came along with vaguely carceral imagery, providing me an excuse to share.

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Nickolas Muray (American, b. Hungary, 1892-1965) immigrated to the United States in 1913, working first as a printer and then opening a photographic portrait studio in Greenwich Village in 1920. He became well known for his celebrity portraits, publishing them regularly in Harper’s Bazaar, Vanity Fair, Vogue, Ladies’ Home Journal, and The New York Times. After 1930, Muray turned away from celebrity and theatrical portraiture, and became a pioneering commercial photographer, famous for establishing many of the conventions of color advertising. He is considered the master of the three-color carbro process. Muray’s portraits of Frida Kahlo are well known and well-loved.

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