Nina Freudenheim Gallery
September 11—October 14, 2004
140 North Street-Hotel Lenox Buffalo NY 14201
716-882-5777 Fax 716-885-8636
Click here or on either image for a slideshow of the images
about the images
These images are based on a group of about two hundred 3x4" identification photographs made between 1914 and 1937 that I found in a drawer in the Arkansas penitentiary in the summer of 1975. The photographs of the men were loose in the drawer; the photographs of the women—all of them white— were in a small brown envelope. Most of the photographs of the men were taken inside, against a wall or a cloth; most of the photographs of the women were taken outside, near a fence, in a wicker chair.
Second only to a coroner’s photographs of the newly dead, police and prison identification photographs are perhaps the least merciful and most democratic and anonymous photographs of all. The lighting is the same for everyone. The people being photographed have no interest in the photographs being made; the people making the photographs have no interest in the photographs they have made. There are no names on the prints, and the files connected with them were long ago put somewhere no one now remembers. All that remains of these prisoners from seventy, eighty and ninety years ago are these anonymous images.
The images are archaeological links to lives in another place, another time. The faces they depict are fixed and unmoving, long dead men and women when they were in their youth and middle age. But the pictures are also about transience and change. Time has altered the color of the paper and the density of the images, and many show physical evidence of moments when they weren’t left in a drawer waiting to be found: the red rust of a onetime paper clip, the bright steel of a staple, the deliberate or accidental mark of a pen.
It is impossible to look at these images and not think about the persons depicted there. But, save for one fact that is a given—and what we find in or infer from these images—we know nothing about those persons, and never will. The given is that they are all prisoners: for whatever reason, they have been deprived of liberty, the single piece of enduring proof of which is the image at which we presently gaze. The conclusions we draw, the feelings we have, the narratives we suppose —they are all our own. The images are mirrors, resonating with aspects of our selves we perhaps never before encountered.
That resonance doesn’t occur when the images are 3x4". Small, they are part of something else—a bureaucratic file, a dossier—even though that something else is now dust. Bureaucratic dossiers trivialize and reduce human life and experience. That is part of their function. Printed large, the images again depict individuals., people who had substance and weight in this world. They look at us even as we look at them. I began making these images on 8x10" paper, then went to 11x14", but both were too small. The images had to be larger. At 13x19" many of them are life size. You can’t trivialize them when they’re life size. Their eyes meet your eyes.
about the prints
In the printing, I sought a balance between what I thought the original image looked like while maintaining some indication of the accumulated effect of time. Many of the original images are now little more than shades of pale yellow. The prints are in an edition of ten, done with Photoshop CS on Epson archival matte paper with an Epson Stylus Pro 4000 printer using Ultrachrome pigment-based inks. Properly handled, the life expectancy of these images is over 100 years.
Bruce Jackson is a documentary artist presently on the faculty of University at Buffalo, where he is SUNY Distinguished Professor and Samuel P. Capen Professor of American Culture. His award-winning documentary films, made in collaboration with Diane Christian, have been broadcast on public television in the US and Europe and exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art, the Whitney Museum of Art, the Library of Congress, and many other major institutions. His prison photographs, as well as his photographs of Robert Creeley, Janis Joplin, William Kunstler, and other figures in politics and the arts, have been widely published. In 1977, Cornell University Press published Killing Time, a collection of his photographs from the Arkansas penitentiary. The University at Buffalo’s Anderson Gallery will host a large retrospective of his documentary photography in spring 2006. He is the author or editor of 22 books and more than 250 articles, which have appeared in New York Times Magazine, Atlantic Monthly, Harper’s, Nation, CounterPunch and dozens of other general and scholarly periodicals. In 2002, the French government, citing his documentary and artistic work, named him Chevalier in l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres.