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“I’m not interested in the political side of it at all. I don’t deny it and know it filters into the work, but I’m just not approaching it from that perspective. I’m interested in exploring inner exile and profound beauty as redemptive and liberating. There is that famous Dostoyevsky quote that ‘Beauty will redeem the world.’”

Anna Shteynshleyger, in an email to Tim Davis. April 21st, 2005

Perm (Grasses), 2001. © Anna Shteynshleyger

Perm (Grasses), 2001. © Anna Shteynshleyger

Guggenheim time again. Seven photographers were recipients of the big one. All of them are preoccupied with the passage of time. Thomas Joshua Cooper studies waves for a long time; Osamu James Nakagawa studies waves crashing in to cliffs for a long time; Suzanne Opton records the melancholy of veteran soldiers (a subject that will likely last a long time); Cheryle St. Onge makes reference to her Grandmother’s times; and Byron Wolfe has “for nearly twenty years held a deep and abiding interest in ideas about time, change, and the personal relationships one makes with a place.” Brian Ulrich‘s relation to time is that he is the hardest working man in the business and operates like there’s no time left. (I admit, that one’s a step too far).

Prison Photography‘s interest in the Guggenheim Awards for 2009 is specifically with Anna Shteynshleyger.

Siberia is Shteynshleyger’s visual record of the topography of prison labour camp sites and works. Critics and public are likely to know her more accessible work done at the Port Authority of unextraordinary people on escalators unextraordinarily unaware. Port Authority is an ordinary project; I cannot give it much time. Or perhaps Shteynshleyger’s versatility pulling the viewer from Port Authority‘s whim to the import and nonchalance of Siberia is too big of a conversion to devote the belief in both.

Kolyma (Floor), 2002. © Anna Shteynshleyger

Kolyma (Floor), 2002. © Anna Shteynshleyger

With steady assurance Siberia deals with time, as it deals with the site, as it deals with the intelligence of the viewer. Too often a photographer rushes to the physical clue – the visual pointer – to drive home the importance of the political statement he or she intends to make. Shteynshleyger is not interested in explanation. Without the title on the wall and without the catalogue essay her pictures are simply a competent, nay beautiful, collection of large-format colour prints. They are mostly landscapes and, in truth, landscapes that could be from any continent on earth.

Perm (Bush), 2001. © Anna Shteynshleyger

Perm (Bush), 2001. © Anna Shteynshleyger

Tim Davis wrote an excellent piece on Shteynshleyger’s Siberia citing ‘paintings of absense’ from art historical cannon, one-off expressions of ‘the sublime’ by genre painters, and the philosophy of modern cinema auteurs. Davis deliberately talks about as many things other than Shteynshleyger’s work in an attempt to position and thus explain Shteynshleyger’s work. It is a fine, fine judgement call;

Anna’s photographs of Siberia, a territory as suffused with suffering as any place on the planet, do not “bear witness” to anything. They are not documents of anyone’s journey. They are not war monuments; they are not apologies. Though her camera is pointing in the direction of historical sites of unremembered trauma, her pictures are not records of the locations of past crimes. They do not reckon with the past. They sidestep the inevitable failure of the photograph to stand for historical events. They are oblique and difficult, refusing any Spielbergian urge to heal through reliving previous horrors.

Some might argue Davis is wrong. That what he identifies as a resourceful, no-label, psuedo-documentary response to massive ideological violence is in fact a confusion of approach on Shteynshleyger’s part. But they would be wrong. William Meyer wrote a critique of Siberia beginning with the observation that many artists and photographers have sifted and surveyed Nazi concentration camps, and frequently (on the shoulders of other artists) have produced resonant work. The audience for art reflecting the holocaust and concentration camp trauma is well versed in the visual vocabulary of such. For Meyer, the Gulag is in a different position;

How many agitate on behalf of its victims? There are few memorials, few markers, few museums, few tourists. Out of sight, out of mind. But Ms. Shteynshleyger wants to show us.

Shteynshleyger is a pioneer and she is showing us how we can understand horror and how we can understand that horror passes. To me, it seems her images are as private as old men and women who hold silent testimony to past events. Just because something is understood doesn’t mean it should be said, and just because something is said does not make it understood.

Untitled (Tires), 2002. © Anna Shteynshleyger

Untitled (Tires), 2002. © Anna Shteynshleyger

It isn’t that Shteynshleyger’s work is evasive; it just seems she wants a rigorously curious audience as opposed to a docile one. She is quoted as saying;

… be it a metaphysical or cultural concern, whether it’s a critique or a celebration, art remains a practice rooted deeply in the material world. We make likenesses of what we see and transform our world in a very tangible way. Any situation can reveal a reality not apparent at first examination.

If Dostoyevsky is right and beauty is to redeem the world, beauty must either be apolitical or the most beautiful consensus-sealing political position never reached. Politics, in the common understanding of the term, can be a brutish and rude affair. If there is a message to take away from Shteynshleyger’s work it is, perhaps, that we should search for beauty more rigorously and pay more attention to understated, and dare I say it, apolitical positions.

Untitled (Perm Clouds), 2002 © Anna Shteynshleyger

Untitled (Perm Clouds), 2002 © Anna Shteynshleyger

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Anna Shteynshleyger was born in Moscow, Russia in 1977. She came to the United States in 1992. Shteynshleyger received a BFA from the Maryland Institute College of Art (1999) and an MFA from Yale University (2001). In 2004 the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago mounted a solo exhibition of her Siberia pictures. In 2006, her (12×12 project) was exhibited at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago and Art Basel Miami Beach at the Jacob Karpio gallery in Miami, FL. Other exhibitions have been mounted at Moti Hasson Gallery, NY; Murray Guy Gallery, NY; Lombard-Fried Fine Arts, NY; Artists Space, NY; Vedanta Gallery, Chicago; Thomas McCormick Gallery, Chicago; Zolla Lieberman Gallery, Chicago. Shteynshleyger’s work is in the permanent collections of the Museum of Contemporary Photography, Chicago; LaSalle Bank Photography Collection, Chicago; Yale University Libraries and the University of Maine Museum of Art. She is the recipient of an Illinois Art Council Finalist Award, Blair Dickinson Memorial Award and Guggenheim Fellowship. Shteynshleyger is currently an adjunct professor of photography at Columbia College Chicago and McHenry County College.

Wild thanks to Brendan over at Anxiety Neurosis for publishing on the world wide web my recent heartfelt plea to close friends. My words are now world wide … and webby. Seriously, I’d encourage you to read his analysis as he said, with some degree of wit and intelligence, what I had relied on the New York Times Opinion Page to say for me.

David Alan Harvey, Title Unknown, from Living Proof 1 series

David Alan Harvey, Title Unknown, from Living Proof 1 series

I’d advise that you don’t read on after Brendan’s discussion of the propositions regarding criminal justice, as the tone changes to one of outrage and profanity. Do, however, consider Brendan’s intriguing solution to our failed social experiment and financial black hole we know as the prison-industrial-complex.

My daydreams might seem a little strange to you. I envision a system of work-camps spread throughout California. Low-level offenders (obviously non-violent) would be siphoned away from the concrete and steel onto various prison farms. They would become, possibly for the first time, acquainted with the world of plants, dirt, sky. They would be required to till the soil, sow the seed, reap the harvest and above all else participate in a cycle of life greater than their own. The crops (organic, obviously) would be distributed throughout state agencies providing food for the convicts, prisons, schools and state hospitals. Imagine school-children eating something that hadn’t be processed and purchased from a profit-driven third party with no regard for the kids’ health or well-being. At night the inmates of my farms would take various classes both academic and trade-oriented. They could see therapists, take workshops or paint the distant mountains in watercolor. Whatever they need to show them something outside of the life they’ve known. They would have free range of the property in question, requiring a couple fences and a small staff of guards. Where are they going to run to?

Knowing Brendan as I do, he hides here a vulnerable idealism that we would all like to embrace but the bottom-line mentality of modern life has disappointed us too often. We keep our arms folded. Brendan’s main points are uncontestable though – remove non-violent offenders from prisons; engage them in more than wall-staring for 23 hours a day; provide meaningful, even plentiful, opportunities for rehabilitation, education and therapy. Unfortunately, all this costs money and when CDCR struggles to cover the cost of inhumane lock-up the chance of seeing an individual-oriented rehabilitation is less than zero.

Work-camps do exist in California and they specialise in training for fire-abatement. This is a far cry from Brendan’s organic farming initiative, but probably skills in bio-diverse agriculture are as handy as skills in fire suppression. As we continue to burn fossil fuels and globally-warm our summers, growing local crops and putting pay to the 3,000 mile caesar salad, will be as relevant as beating annual forest fires.

Photographer Unknown

Photographer Unknown

But if we are talking about productive inmates it is worth noting that the CDCR runs the Prison Industry Authority paying inmates anywhere between 30 cents and 95 cents before deductions. This is a body that provides state departments with furniture, uniforms and California drivers with their license plates. Many have described this system as “Modern Day Slave Labor”. If it seems that way, it’s because it is.

CDCR runs the PIA because the state profits from it. Engaging the inmate in daily activity is essential, but we should try to move away from repetitive factory production, or at the very least break it up with other outlets of energy (and ideally even creativity). What other administered programs could occupy inmates’ time? We must consider here programs that do not turn an immediate product or profit – but secure long term savings for society as the inmate is provided with skills and self esteem. The PIA uses 5,900 CDCR inmates. What do the remaining 312,511 men, women and children under CDCR jurisdiction do?

These are general questions (and admittedly subjective gripes) for which there are no correct answers. Nevertheless, with so many systemic problems we should only focus on the problems we can affect and the most timely problems of the CDCR. Californians’ priorities now must be to prevent the motion to change the criminal-justice system into a “victim-vengeance system” (Prop. 9) and the motion to broaden the state’s definition of crime, subjecting thousands more citizens to the abuses of a failed system (Prop. 6).

In the meantime, we can all focus on the watercolour opportunities available to inmates at Wasco State Prison.

Wasco State Prison's new solar field

Wasco State Prison's new solar field

Note on Images: David Alan Harvey’s image here is included purely for aesthetic reasons. The author confesses no background knowledge of the image, only an intrigue in the juxtaposition between uniform-pressed youth and caricatured-inmates subjected to the humility of stripes and trucker hats. Even if these young men grew up and/or went to the same schools together, there is no relationship between them now. All this is neatly summarised by the wielding of the gun. The guard pays attention to the camera almost unaware of his responsibilities over his shoulder. The rifle makes the guard’s close personal observation of inmates unnecessary; the guard has a back-up. With the use of weaponry, any misdemeanour can be remedied/snuffed out within an instant.

I do not know David Alan Harvey’s views on the prison industrial complex. If I ever acquire that knowledge I will be sure to share it. As well as his website he also has a solid blog.

Disclaimer: This post, while making use of photographic imagery is a non-objective commentary. It has more to do with the author’s politic than an academic look at the photographic medium.

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