When news spread earlier this year that New York would implement an expanded ban on books available to inmates in state prisons, the story seemed a fresh blow to the state of American prisons. But as a New York Times report on the regulation noted, the keeping of books and knowledge from inmates, and in particular black Americans (who make up 49% of New York’s state prison population), has a history that runs back to the 1971 Attica uprising, and even further to the days of slavery.
Deborah Luster’s stunning portraits of inmates at Louisiana’s State Penitentiary in Angola, built on the land of former slave plantations, make up the nucleus of Aperture Foundation’s exhibition Prison Nation and connect directly to this history of slavery, imprisonment, and censorship. If prisons ban certain texts for what their narratives might inspire in readers, cameras are also banned and thus prevent prisoners from telling their own visual stories. The images and art works that make up this exhibition — mostly vernacular and documentary photographs, but also one artist’s book and a series of image transfers onto prison soap — restore dignity to their subjects by restoring nuance to their stories.
Luster’s portraits, taken to document a public inmate production of the play The Life of Jesus Christ, recall the format of her earlier work documenting prisoners in three Louisiana facilities with the late poet C.D. Wright. For that collaboration, a 2003 photobook entitled One Big Self, Wright recorded in documentary style poetry details of their journey and the lives and words of inmates they met. Luster took portraits of inmates against black backgrounds, sometimes in costumes (one woman poses in her disguise for a Halloween-themed haunted house), and sometimes against the background of the fields surrounding Angola where they worked.
In Passion Play (2012–13), the series of portraits taken from Angola’s theatrical production and included in Aperture’s exhibition, Luster again sets her subjects against a black background. The lighting in these portraits is luminous, emphasizing what the poses reveal: sorrow, pride, playfulness, performance, reticence. Each titled after the names of their subjects and the roles they played, these portraits foreground costumes that, in fact, free the expressivity of the prisoners who sit for Luster’s camera. James Blackburn, an older white man who sits almost disconsolately in a too-large helmet, poses in the guise of a Roman horse soldier. Levelle “Black” Tolliver’s Judas peers out with a slight slump in his pose, one shoulder dropped, as if searching for forgiveness. The portrait of Layla “Roach” Roberts as an inquisitor beguiles: he gazes directly at the camera and us, as coins spill out onto his lap from his hands. Instead of proof of corruption in the temple, these coins, and Roberts’s hands especially, read as proof of some kind of generosity — toward the camera or us or even himself.
Prison Nation yokes together a variety of visual modes to tell prisoners’ stories, including vernacular snapshots, documentary photos sourced from archives, landscapes that flirt with surveillance, and even tropes reminiscent of television series. The typical ban on cameras in prisons might restrict the ways prisoners can tell their own stories, but from these multiple vantages and styles, different narratives begin to emerge. Nicole R. Fleetwood, the contributing editor to the exhibition’s companion magazine issue, includes a collection of family portraits taken by official prison photographers during visits to two of her male relatives. As she writes, “Among the most striking features that set these images apart from more publicly circulated photographs of prisoners are the emotive smiles, the imaginative backdrops, and the familial gazes of the photographic subjects that, one could argue, acknowledge their intended audience.”
Lucas Foglia’s photographs (2014) that document the Rikers Island GreenHouse program (which promotes gardens as therapeutic environments for prisoners) pop with the colors of a green garden, flowers, and the orange-striped jumpsuits the inmates wear while gardening. The images recall the visual vocabulary of Orange Is the New Black and make visible a part of Rikers, known for its violence and abuses, that in the words of one inmate gardener, offers “the only place where we feel like human beings.”
Stephen Tourlentes’s three landscape portraits of prisons and their environs from the series Of Length and Measures: Prison and the American Landscape (1996–ongoing) remove human subjects from the images altogether. In photographs taken of the “Wyoming State Death House Prison, Rawlins, Wyoming” (2000) and “Buckeye, Arizona State Prison” (2004), the lights of the prisons glow from behind natural barriers in the landscape that obstruct the camera’s view. In “Waupan, Wisconsin State Prison (Dodge Unit)” (2014), Tourlentes captures an empty neighborhood block with, instead of a cul-de-sac, a prison’s chain-link fence at the end of the street. Prisoners and neighbors, alike, are missing from these images.
Overall, the exhibition indicts American society as a “prison nation.” Prisons are not blank spots on the map but a defining feature of our society, made invisible by capitalist profiteering and bad political choices. And prisoners’ stories are part of the American story. Censorship may limit what can be seen and told, but these narratives are irreducible to stereotype.
For C.D. Wright, her trips with Deborah Luster into the prisons they visited for One Big Self took on the moral weight of witness and the guilty responsibility of the one who is free to leave as she pleases at the end of a visit. Wright was sensitive to both the ways that a small, impoverished town comes to depend on a corporatized prison system and the fact that art is not set apart from the lived realities of that or any system. “It might behoove us,” she writes in reflecting on these interconnections, “to see prisoners, among others, as they elect to be seen, in their larger selves.”
Prison Nation continues at the Aperture Foundation (547 West 27th Street, 4th Floor, Chelsea, Manhattan) through March 7.