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BERKELEY, Calif. — In 2011, the artist and photographer Nigel Poor began working with incarcerated men in San Quentin State Prison, a minimum-maximum facility on northwest San Francisco Bay, where more than 4,000 inmates are currently incarcerated, including over 700 men on death row. San Quentin is, in effect, a small town whose population lives alongside those of other Bay Area cities, but remains unseen. The San Quentin Project: Nigel Poor and the Men of San Quentin State Prison, currently at the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive (BAMPFA), begins to make San Quentin — its culture, history, and people — visible.
Today, Poor is widely known as co-creator with inmate Earlonne Woods of Ear Hustle, an acclaimed podcast where listeners drop in on everyday life inside the prison and hear stories of men who live there. With more than 20 million downloads to date, Ear Hustle has been a worldwide success whose popularity contributed to California Governor Jerry Brown commuting Woods’s sentence in 2018. Visitors to the show can listen to the podcast in an adjacent gallery.
But years before Ear Hustle, Poor taught her first course in San Quentin: “Visual Concerns in Photography.” That was in 2011, when she was still teaching from “conventional art photography” — images that she’d had to run past San Quentin officials, who’d initially vetoed each one. It’s difficult to teach photography without photographs, so Poor first offered a three-hour version of her course to prison officials, who afterwards let her use the same images that had been denied.
The following year, a prison official showed Poor nine bankers boxes stored under his desk. They contained thousands of mostly unlabeled four-by-five-inch negatives in yellowed sleeves, photographs documenting life inside the prison from the 1930s to ’80s. An entire culture that would otherwise be lost, captured on film.
The current exhibition at BAMPFA reflects on the fruits of Poor’s course, displaying class materials, including more than 80 black-and-white documentary photographs taken by correction officers over the years that cover seemingly all aspects of life in prison, from Mother’s Day visits to jail cell dummies meant for intended escapes. These photos constitute a decades-long prison archive of images, but with little or no accompanying information. So they require interpretation. And though documentary in nature, the pictures were taken with cumbersome, large-format cameras, resulting in photographs that are aesthetically striking and often quite beautiful.
In 2012, Poor began teaching with the prison photos, asking students to “map” their thoughts, analyses, descriptions, and interpretations directly onto the pictures. The results are arresting, as the writers, who are also men in prison, make anonymous images their own, speaking out of their own experiences, bringing insights and empathy that no outside critic or art historian could.
For example, on a photo of a man weightlifting, Harold Meeks’s notes range from banal, “‘Safety First’ by use of a back brace and gloves,” to existential, “In this era staying fit was key to survival behind these walls, if not, you’ll become a victim.” On an image of a Native American pow wow dancer, George “Mesro” Coles-El has drawn arrows to background chimneys with no smoke, noting, “This is not a work day,” while another arrow points to a tower: “Gunner may be watching while all by himself.” But also, next to the dancer, “His dance seems heedless of location and speaks of freedom.”
In an email, I asked Poor if she considers such notations a kind of art. “Yes those pieces are beautiful creations that honor the original intent of the photograph while comingling it with markings and notes that allow the viewer to reconsider the photograph’s meaning,” she wrote. “And they also become an autobiography of the person who interacted with the image — a kind of unintended collaboration.” They are, in effect, dual portraits between observer and observed.
Visitors to the show experience the archival photographs the same way men in Poor’s class would have — with no captions or explanations. I admit, this bugged me. I personally enjoy a thorough wall label, but it does force you to work. And by work, I mean look.
Photo after photo lines the walls and early in you’d hardly know these are images of incarceration. Men pose in white shorts, holding tennis racquets; a man with a fishing pole in one hand holds a big fish by its gills in the other; a man with his legs splayed on the grass balances a young child between them, toddler fists resting along his big thighs.
It’s not until well into the gallery that there are pictures of jail cells, knives, staged recreations of assaults, and men’s torsos with stab wounds. I was reminded that these were all photographs from San Quentin State Prison, whether of dead fish or flesh wounds, and that the men in them were probably not asked for their consent. Because there’s almost no documentation, there’s also no way to ask if it’s OK to exhibit them now.
Though there might be ethical objections to showing these archival photos, and by extension the mapping collaborations done with them, there are equally imperative reasons why they should be shown.
At a talk in August, curator Lisa Sutcliffe was asked why an exhibition about San Quentin premiered at the Milwaukee Art Museum, where it was on view from October 2018 through March of this year. Sutcliffe, who went to Milwaukee from the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA), had discovered that Wisconsin has the highest rate of incarcerated Black men in the country, and that the state offers no educational programs in prisons. So, the Milwaukee show was a gesture toward prison reform, revealing what happens in prisons, and what can happen: Art, education, community. At BAMPFA, the show is a chance for non-incarcerated citizens of the Bay Area to witness their mostly invisible neighbors.
After her talk, I watched an older man immediately approach Sutcliffe. The man mentioned he was a former inmate who knew some of the men in Poor’s class. Sutcliffe smiled and asked him questions, while people nearby leaned closer to listen in. She asked, would he mind if she had her picture taken with him. He did not mind.
The San Quentin Project: Nigel Poor and the Men of San Quentin State Prison continues at the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive (2155 Center St, Berkeley, California) through November 17. The exhibition is curated by Lisa Sutcliffe. The BAMPFA presentation is organized by Senior Curator for Asian Art Julia M. White and Associate Curator Stephanie Cannizzo.