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  1. Creator Q&A: Pete Brook and Prison Photography

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    Nearly four years in the making, Pete Brook's Prison Photography is a nuanced analysis of American visual culture as it relates to prisons, prison culture, and overarching issues of social justice. Drawing from the work of celebrated photographers like Jenn Ackerman and Taro Yamasaki (among many others), Pete has built a superbly curated archive of imagery from prisons across the country — and, in doing so, instigated an essential dialogue about the current state of American prisons with an eye toward the future of social justice. Intrigued by the principles behind the project, I dropped Pete a line to find out more. His answers, along with a special selection of the photographs he has come across so far, are below.

    Did you see a particular photograph, have a particular conversation, or meet a particular person that inspired your trip?

    There was not one photographer, but the cumulative swell of the power of their work. Together their photographies assume a view that is counter to mass media misrepresentations. I want to investigate that.
    I used to think I was a loner worrying about prisons and their representation, but I’ve been buoyed by positive feedback for my writing. It made sense to test this support and press the community into a more immediate involvement. The trip, which includes interviews, writing, editing, lectures and driving will be a lot of work for me but it’ll be a lot of involvement for the community too.

    What are your favorite images from some of the photographers you plan to interview? Why the images are particularly striking to you?

    There’s so many to choose from, but for the purposes of this interview and the need to keep it brief I’ll name a quick five:

    'Female Blood', 1995. © Jamel Shabazz.
    'Female Blood', 1995. © Jamel Shabazz.

    Jamel Shabazz has been celebrated for his street photography and portraits of New York and New Yorkers in the 1980s. I want to talk to him about everything else really, the stuff that isn’t known. But more than that, his day job was as a correctional officer. He worked at Rikers Island for 20 years. It’d be interesting to hear his perspective; he’ll no doubt correct misconceptions that exist may about him, about his photography and about prison populations generally. It’s very rare to meet a renowned photographer who also worked within a prison system.

    'Jenar Jury' © Deborah Luster.
    'Jenar Jury' © Deborah Luster.

    Deborah Luster spent five years making portraits and imitation tintypes of prisoners in the Louisiana prison system. She did so in the cotton fields, at Halloween and Mardi Gras pageants, at the renowned Angola Prison Rodeo. Her subjects improvised with costume and created very personal self-depictions. The photography itself is beautiful and gives audiences a new way into the lives of prisoners. Deborah estimates she gave away 25,000 prints of her images to her inmate-subjects. Not surprisingly, they were prized objects.

    'Comstock, NY State Prison', 2009 © Stephen Tourlentes.
    'Comstock, NY State Prison', 2009 © Stephen Tourlentes.

    Stephen Tourlentes’ work is intelligent, efficient and realigns the discussion. His work is about geographic territories and social control before it is about the day-to-day hardships of prison life. A lot of prison photography focuses on the emotive nature of prisons, but Tourlentes’ work is broader in scope – it’s about the strategic nature of prisons.

    From the series "Inside Jackson Prison", 1981 © Taro Yamasaki.
    From the series "Inside Jackson Prison", 1981 © Taro Yamasaki.
    Taro Yamasaki won a Pulitzer for his coverage of South Michigan State Penitentiary in 1981. I interviewed him over the phone nearly three years ago, but neither of us were happy with the outcome. Now we’re going to spend time in his studio, looking over prints and really get to the heart of the work. Taro was a press photographer but his work is really pioneering. He spent six days at the prison and photographed things that had simply not been seen before. The early eighties is a critical moment when tensions were high, populations growing and regime change was coming for many prisons across the country.
    'Ramsey Prison Cell Block, Texas Prison, 1968' © Danny Lyon.
    'Ramsey Prison Cell Block, Texas Prison, 1968' © Danny Lyon.

    Danny Lyon was a journalist that got inside of the subcultures he documented. He was already well known for his series The Bikeriders for which he rode with the Hells Angels among others. His project "Conversations With the Dead," photographs of Texas Death Row, was not a commercial success, but overtime has become to be regarded as one of the most important projects in American documentary. It’s not that Lyon saw things before everyone else, it’s just that he was there; he put himself in it and gave posterity every reason to shine favourably upon his work.

    What was your entry point into the Prison Photography on the Road project?

    It’s not a project out of the blue; it’s a natural extension of the writing at my website Prison Photography. I needed to get out from behind a desk, go into the world, engage people on the topic of prisons, and try to tap new audiences — for my own sanity and because some photographers will only meet in person … an old fashioned idea!

    Not everyone wants to read about prisons, but lots of people can be brought into a conversation by way of an image. I want to make this discussion about photography compelling and relevant to the realities of prison in America today. I’m not naïve, I don’t think photography is all-powerful, but images are everywhere in society and deserve attention, especially when imagery is dealing with a large constituency of American citizens (there’s 2.3 million men, women and children incarcerated in the U.S. today).

    My entry point into the topic of prisons, generally, was my work as a graduate student. In 2004, I was evaluating the narrative at the San Quentin Prison Museum (SQPM), CA. I had to know if the narrative related to the contemporary prison politics of California. It didn’t; the narrative ended in 1971. The narrative at the SQPM was a rigid, top-down, prescribed biography of the prison for those most heavily invested — mainly the retired Warden who established the museum, who was, of course, a product of the California Department of Corrections. This is counter to today’s best practices for museums that should ask the audience questions and be reflexive spaces for learning.

    Our realities are shaped by the stories we hear and see. 

    We don’t like to talk about the fact that for decades we’ve backed politicians bloated with tough-on-crime rhetoric. The war on drugs is a war on poor people. Cable TV is full of sensational images of crime and criminals, fear and violence, but it doesn’t show us the progressive steps, the potential for transformation — either through new work skills, education, treatment programs — that exist in all individuals.  I’m interested in how images are manufactured, distributed and consumed. America has a rich tradition in photography, particularly documentary, but I can’t help think that many of the diverse stories and experiences of prisoners, correctional officers and families have not been told. Or, if they have, they’ve not got wide distribution.
    So, I want to delve deep into the visual culture of prisons but go further and back it up with context given by expert individuals in prison arts, prison education, law and labor advocacy that I meet on the way.

    In your opinion, why are photographers working in prisons so effectively able to shape our collective dialogue on issues of social justice?

    I don’t always think they are. Sometimes, photographers working inside sites of incarceration just end up repeating and extending the protocols of prisons. This is unfortunate but not always avoidable. I think the best photography done in prisons results from a photographer’s prolonged engagement with the subject; it builds trust, it improves accuracy, it allows for a dialogue to develop and it usually brings the subject in as a collaborator. Photography can be used to connect people and used as a rehabilitative tool. Logistically, it’s hard to get into prisons and jails with a camera, if you do, why not lead a workshop?

    What drew you to, specifically, the connection between visual culture and issues of activism/social justice?

    We live in a visual world. Every image is political. Sometimes we should not be thinking about the images we see, but instead thinking about the images we do NOT see. 

    I’ve long contended that prisons in America are invisible, which is not a surprise as their purpose is highly contested and they are controversial. There are high stakes at play when a camera enters a prison or jail.
    To me, prisons in America fail their wards and fail the public. It makes sense they get hidden. Unfortunately, there still remains little political advantage to calls for reforming sentencing and prisons.

    In society, so much imagery is created in the interest of commerce and consumerism, we need to accept that the vast majority of imagery is trying to sell us something. I’m not saying consumerist imagery is inherently bad, but I am asking that people are more critical and distinguish the motives behind images. Images are a battlefield. To take an extreme example, W.J.T. Mitchell has said, “Terrorism is a war of images, and it can only be ended by a counter attack at the level of images.” With that logic we should be making and promoting images that forward social justice aims.

    You're releasing your materials for free/general use under a CC license — can you tell me more about this decision and why you made it?

    It just makes sense. Information and stories are worth most when they are shared among those who stand to benefit most. My costs are covered by the kind donations of supporters. It would seem wrong to bleed money (over years or decades) out of material gathered only because of the generosity of others. It wouldn’t fit with the spirit of the trip. If we’re to stand any chance reversing 30 years of failed policy, longer sentencing, expensive prosecutions of non-violent offenders, the criminalization of addiction, the war on drugs and prison profiteering then it’ll be a collective effort.

    What is your expected audience for this project? Who do you envision as your ideal "reader" and what do you hope they will take away from it?

    My regular readers are excited to see how I handle the pressure, responsibility, and fun of face-to-face interviews; the research that involves and the different way one has to handle information in audio interviews.
    I am hoping prison and sentencing reform communities in particular benefit from use of the audio and the expert views contained within.

    The discussions with the photographers will be of great interest to the photo community … and that interest extends beyond America.

    There’s a subset of writers and readers in the photoblogosphere who are engaged in the politics of images, history and visual cultures, and media. I think the project appeals to them.

    How has the experience of using Kickstarter been so far?

    Difficult to make any firm conclusions … there’s still three weeks of fundraising left. The public platform is fantastic: I received funding from people wide and far. I have no idea how they found the project — the magical power of the internets I suppose! Everyone seems very grateful for the effort put into the video. It took a while to put it together but it’s well worth it in terms of explaining the project to folk perhaps not familiar with my work in the past.

    The back end of the Kickstarter website is very easy to use and edit. Surprising to me, this was the first time many people in my circles have heard of Kickstarter and crowdfunding generally. I first heard about crowdfunding four years ago with the establishment of Spot.Us. To me it’s a common sense means to raise money in a connected age but I realize it is still catching on with the general public.

  2. Creator Q&A with Dave Yoder on The Search for the Lost da Vinci.

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    This project is a big one. It's not only ambitious in the financial sense (the goal is $266,500), but it has potential to rock the art world, rock Florence, and rock the socks off of everyone who has spent the last, oh, 500 years wondering: Where is Leonardo da Vinci's masterpiece, The Battle of Anghiari?

    We know that the painting was begun in 1505, in Florence's Palazzo Vecchio, and hung in the Hall of 500, unfinished, until the room was remodeled in 1563 and covered in a Vasari mural. We have Leonardo's sketches, we have glowing notes of praise from artists and historians, and a copy painted by Rubens even hangs in the Louvre. But we don't have the painting.

    But we do have some clues. Vasari greatly admired da Vinci's work, and art historians agree it would be strange for him to agree to destroy The Battle of Anghiari to make room for his mural. There is even a clue: the only piece of writing in Vasari's entire room of murals are the words, "Cerca Trova," written on a tiny flag right where the finished part of da Vinci's painting would have hung. In Italian, cerca trova means, roughly, "Seek and you will find."

    And seeking is just what Dr. Maurizio Seracini and his team have been doing for the past 35 years, and what Dave has been documenting since 2007. Thanks to all kinds of technology (particle accelerator, guys!), and the help of art historians, physicists, and Florentine officials, everyone is pretty sure the da Vinci is nestled in a small gap left by Vasari, 12 centimeters behind the brick wall. 

    But they have to be sure before they go about messing with a Vasari. Which is where the project comes in. They're raising money to take a "copper-crystal mosaic gamma ray diffraction lens" (Science!) to the Hall of 500 and see if they can not only detect the painting, but take what is essentially a photograph of the image.


    The whole story is irresistibly entangling, and I'd encourage you to watch the project video, read the New York Times article published last week, and maybe even fall down the same Wikipedia rabbit hole I did. It will not only make you nostalgic for art history class, it will make you realize that this project has the exciting potential to contribute to art history itself.

    It's a big project.

    After becoming so wrapped up in this story, I wanted to reach out to Dave, the project's photographer and the guy responsible for the Kickstarter project, and ask a few questions about how he got involved, what he was feeling about everything, and if he really thinks that painting is behind the wall:

    First things first: what's it like being in the same room with a particle accelerator?

    That depends on the particle accelerator! The one at ENEA in Frascati was quite impressive, huge, looking like a prop on the set of a large-budget science fiction movie from the 50’s. However, the one we will use in the Hall of 500 will more closely resemble a shoebox, more like a toaster you plug into a wall. In a word—underwhelming.

    So how the heck did you get involved with this project? What brought you to it, or it to you? And if you had to do it over again, would you?

    I had originally seen a small press article online. I archived it, then forgot about it for a couple years, until I had an assignment in Florence and the opportunity to meet Dr. Seracini. I told him I knew the right people at National Geographic to propose it to, and it really started there. Soon after the proposal was accepted, there was a lot of enthusiasm—TV doc, magazine, books, etc., but when the project stalled--first for politics and then for funding--we lost momentum. But soon, we will know whether our years of work will come to fruition.

    This has been a long, angst-ridden haul. It is impossible to completely remove the queasy feeling of uncertainty over whether I have been tilting at windmills rather than putting that energy into my freelance career. But if I were transported back four years and smitten with the curse of clairvoyance, knowing what lay ahead, I would still have to resign myself to doing it all again--because it’s a story like no other. It’s one in ten lifetimes.

    Say you find that, yes, the painting is behind the wall. What happens then?

    Personally, I will treat myself to the most excessive sushi dinner I’ve ever had. We will know whether the painting is there in the first phase of tests using the raw technology associated with the gamma camera. Using those data gathered in early 2012, providing we find evidence of pigments, we will need a couple months to build a lens optimized for the gamma rays we find, then go back and start imaging part or all of it. Over the longer term, the city will almost certainly temporarily remove the Vasari, excavate the da Vinci, move it, and replace the Vasari.

    If it isn't there, what then? Are there other places to look?

    The painting can only exist in the Hall of 500. Where it was, though, has been a matter of debate for decades. We feel the current state of historical research coupled with Seracini’s scientific work on the hall gives us a very good indication of where it was. If it is not there, we will look around the hall in other locations. If those efforts do not show anything, we cannot say with certainty the painting isn’t there, but we can say there is less than xx amount of paint per square meter, something like that, which would effectively rule out the possibility of its survival.

    You've got a high goal and are just getting started with momentum. How has it all felt? How are you anxiety levels faring? What happens if you don't reach your goal?

    The goal is scarily high, but it is the minimum needed to accomplish the stated task and advance the project. Many people said I should ask for less just to increase the odds of it succeeding. I feel that would be wrong. The source and detector are completely dependent on each other to work, and purchasing only one piece of the technology—say, the particle accelerator without the germanium detector—would leave us just as dead in the water as we are now. It wouldn’t be fair to the people who donated if their contributions were collected but they did not actually help.

    Obviously, the anxiety is high, but it’s also an interesting experiment. If I don’t reach the goal, on a personal level, it’ll be embarrassing, but at least I will have given it a try. That’s life. I’ll have helped add to the collective wisdom of what can and can’t be done in crowd funding.

    In regards to the project, however, it’s a more serious dilemma—we really do need to order the gear soon in order to be ready for when we expect to have our window of opportunity in early 2012. It’s not a marketing gimmick. For that very real problem, I don’t have an answer.

    So. You're four years into this. Do you think that painting is behind that wall?

    I do believe at least part of it survives behind that wall, and I think probably most or all of what da Vinci painted is still back there. There are too many curiosities, in my mind, surrounding that area of the wall, for all of it to be coincidence.

    To me, however, the greatest blessing is that we do not know whether it is there. If we already knew, we would not have this opportunity—there would be only be posturing in closed meeting rooms over how much money can be made from it, and by whom. There would be no scientific exploration, no mystery, and no journey. Not knowing whether the painting is there is the best part of all.

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