Discipline and Photograph:

The Prison Experience

at the Peace Museum, through November 16

Hospice: A Photographic Inquiry

at the Chicago Cultural Center, through November 17

By Fred Camper

I once read that men, not women, were the victims in a majority of rapes in the United States. I assumed the writer was nuts until I got to the next sentence, which referred to the number of rapes in prisons. I would never have thought to count prison rapes, probably because subconsciously I regarded prisoners as somehow less than human.

“Discipline and Photograph: The Prison Experience,” now at the Peace Museum, challenges our stereotypes of prison inmates. Curator James R. Hugunin argues in a catalog essay that these works expose “the politics of representation,” revealing “the ideological construction of the repressive image of ‘the con.'” The exhibit connects, for example, images from books on phrenology–a “science” that “predicted” criminal character through skull measurements–with the use of the mug shot today. The work of four photographers who took pictures inside prisons makes up the exhibit’s core, but videos, photographic books, and an ongoing series of lectures and discussions at the museum are also part of the show.

Lucinda Devlin’s eight large color prints of the apparatuses used in carrying out the death penalty depict a holding cell, lethal injection chamber, and electric chair in soft, sensuous, aestheticized colors, rendering these objects and places both terrifyingly antiseptic and strangely poetic. Hugunin asserts that these stark, empty spaces make us feel “revulsion” for the death penalty. I agree, perhaps because like Hugunin I oppose the death penalty, but I’m not sure that these oddly gorgeous photos would convince anyone not already converted. Public hangings, presumably far more revolting than Devlin’s empty spaces, continued for centuries.

Reader freelancer Lloyd DeGrane is better at expressing a point of view. The compositions of his photographs, taken in Illinois prisons, are literally confining. In one photo a correctional officer’s rifle looms large in the foreground, magnified by a wide-angle lens; in another, bars separate us from the prisoners. A chilling shot during a lockdown at Stateville shows a corridor and the arms and legs of prisoners thrust out through the tiny food slots in their doors, trying to claim a tiny bit of freedom. These limbs severed from their bodies evoke the violence that confinement does to the human spirit. In DeGrane’s photos and others here it’s hard to see where rehabilitation enters the picture. Even a relatively mild moment–a prisoner sitting for his ID photo–has an imprisoning subtext: a huge sheaf of other ID photos on a table show that this flesh-and-blood man is in the process of being reduced to a tiny snapshot.

By creating compositions that are metaphors for confinement, DeGrane both employs an appropriate formal device and foregrounds the danger inherent in photographing prisoners: producing aesthetic imagery that uses inmates as mere raw material for abstract visions. In this way an “art” photographer like Devlin simply mirrors prison’s effects. By contrast Morrie Camhi and Robert Saltzman mounted photos of inmates, their families, and correctional officers next to the subjects’ own words. By adding the messiness of emotional life to carefully composed photos, they give the subject a context, helping define his identity in a way a single image never could. In Camhi’s prints, taken from his book The Prison Experience, I mistook Stanley Thomas for a woman sitting in her cell, a picture of Marilyn on the locker; his words protest the treatment of “feminine black homosexuals” in prison. Robyn Ridgway poses next to a mattress, some modest possessions packed at her feet; she tells of following her husband’s prison assignments from state to state, adding that a few hours after this photo was taken the family moved from California to Wyoming. Camhi makes the toll of confinement on innocent families palpable.

While Camhi printed his texts in a standard font, Saltzman allowed corrections officers and inmates to handwrite their own texts and draw around their photographic images in his series “La Pinta: Doing Time in Santa Fe.” As a result his work is perhaps the least satisfying artistically; the sometimes scrawled texts and simple drawings aren’t well integrated with the photographs. But that may be the point: for Saltzman the human stories are more important than aesthetic unity. Allowing the prisoners (and the underpaid, at-risk staff) equal stature with his images, he gives them a freedom they don’t have in the joint.

The quirky authenticity of the inmates’ texts in Saltzman’s work often surpasses anything an artist could conjure up. One speaks eloquently in semiliterate English about the difference between “loneliness”–feeling lonely–and “aloneness,” having no one anywhere who cares for you. Another invites the reader to visit “beautiful” New Mexico. A third tells us, in a series of brightly colored bands to the right of his portrait, that “the darkest hour in a man’s life is when he sits down to plan how he can get money without earning it.”

This text and similar admissions of crimes from one or two other prisoners bring up a curious fact about this exhibit: only these few statements give the viewer a sense of why these men are in prison. It appears that Hugunin could have mounted the same show if it were government policy to jail citizens at random. While he and the exhibit photographers admirably broaden our perspective on prisoners by including a little item normally left out of representations of them–their humanity–his perspective is as confining as any formalist. Doubtless some subjects have been jailed as a result of false convictions, but many surely did something really awful: used violence and denied victims their humanity. While a few honestly admit to that, Hugunin contends that the “embodiment of negative, antisocial attributes is produced, created largely in order to…distract the public from…’legitimate’ crimes wrought by the State and the Corporation.” Right. Just as a bullet-riddled victim of the Saint Valentine’s Day Massacre claimed, “Nobody shot me.”

The texts accompanying the photos by Camhi and Saltzman not only humanize their subjects but remind us of photography’s fundamental incompleteness. The medium has been dogged by a unique paradox: unlike a painting, a photo is a direct trace of an actual scene, but it’s the record of a narrow reality, an instant of time contained by a single rectangle. For that reason photographers often include written text to give their images a context.

Context is especially important when dying is the subject, as in “Hospice: A Photographic Inquiry,” now at the Chicago Cultural Center, an exhibit that also includes videos and a lecture program. The pharmaceutical company Warner-Lambert commissioned five photographers to shoot work especially for this traveling show, concentrating on the process of dying in a hospice or at home with hospice care. But in photographing dying people the photographers risk at least the appearance of exploitation: the camera, which has a way of stripping away artifice, can be unnaturally cruel. We tend to think of a dying person as someone who’s already partially left life, and shrunken flesh and tottering figures do suggest the loss of part of the self. The challenge for these photographers (as for the prison photographers) is to restore the subjects’ humanity. The solution is to show, as hospice care does, that the process of dying is part of living.

Jim Goldberg’s multimedia documentation of his father’s death and Kathy Vargas’s fussy photo collages are all over the map. But Sally Mann–a photographer best known for her provocative images of her young children–evokes the unknowableness of death in her series “Joan’s Patients,” which combines elusive, poetic black-and-white photographs with wall texts. Often she doesn’t show us any people at all. From a text we learn that the swinging bridge pictured was built by a man who lives beside the river, and we infer that its collapsed state is a metaphor for his imminent passing. Three shots–of a bucket, a dog, and a bush–are identified in the accompanying texts as views from patients’ windows. “What patients see from their windows becomes vital to them,” we read, a thought that gives these seemingly random compositions a subjective intensity. Accompanying a shot of some tracks on a forested snowy ridge are the words “One patient wanted only to revisit the place where, with bow and arrow, he’d killed his first deer.” Rather than showing us decrepit faces and bodies, Mann movingly takes us inside patients’ lives.

By contrast Jack Radcliffe and Nan Goldin confront patients’ wasting bodies directly, adding texts to fill out their stories. Radcliffe’s head-on close-ups, all taken in an AIDS hospice in York, Pennsylvania, suggest a new metaphor: camera as nurse. The consistency of the camera’s distance from and angle on the subject puts the viewer in the same position as a caregiver. In the first three of a series of four photos titled Randy’s 33rd Birthday, three figures standing around the emaciated Randy present him with a cake; the camera, with its own place in the grouping, becomes a fourth. We see Ernie, comatose and about to die, as if we were inserting the feeding bulb into his mouth. In Larry and Frank we see Larry in profile, his head cradled against Frank’s shoulder behind him; it’s as if the camera were cradling Larry on his other side. By making the viewer into a caring participant in these scenes, Radcliffe helps us realize how much care the dying need.

Goldin, best known for trendy photos of urban demimondes, humanizes her subjects with key objects or compositions that reveal the relationships patients have with their visitors. In Amalia, Amanda, and Jennifer, New York City, a woman in bed smiles with two little girls at her side. Three different smiles, three different personalities, three different gazes in different directions give the photo an inner emotional life, as does the brightly colored bedspread and a stuffed animal on the woman’s other side. But even one of Goldin’s solitary figures can be complex: in Joseph Laughing Joseph’s bandaged arm is raised to his forehead, his fingers stretched forcefully outward, though his eyes are lowered and his smile is almost wan.

“Hospice” may have as much of an agenda as the prison show: presumably Warner-Lambert is looking to burnish its corporate image and perhaps increase product sales through its advocacy of hospice care. But both exhibits are at their best when any agenda is in the background (as is usually the case in “Hospice,” perhaps because corporations are better at public relations than art historians)–when the focus is not on aestheticized photographs or broad social themes but on the individual humanity of individual subjects.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photo by Morrie Camni.