Artist and educator Nigel Poor, who brings an incredible solicitude and sense of fellowship to The San Quentin Project, began teaching a history of photography class through the Prison University Project. Since books and cameras were prohibited within the facility, she designed clever assignments in which her students “mapped”—or annotated—iconic images by the likes of William Eggleston and Lee Friedlander, introduced as printouts. They also examined images from the prison’s own archive: black-and-white photographs of mid-20th-century incarcerated life likely taken by corrections officers, although they’re unattributed. These images, a selection of which are published here, reveal not only life inside one of America’s oldest prisons—but also great insight into how prisoners perceived these annals, and themselves.
This is no miserabilist portfolio but, by turns, a disquieting and moving trove of documentary images steeped in ambiguity. The book’s cover photograph is indicative of the unorthodoxy presented within: a black-and-white snapshot of two tennis players squatting before a fence, squinting up at the lensman a bit suspiciously. The photo is placed on a pale eggshell-blue background, a calm color that reflects the empathetic tone of the book. As contributor and curator Lisa Sutcliffe points out, the project runs counter to a “flattened or sensationalized … representation of prisons in entertainment.” Many images from the anonymous archive are disturbing and raw, but the framework in which they are couched is a humanist one, and it is the flawed barbarity of the prison system that is reproached. There are photographs that could seemingly have been extricated from anywhere, like five Black musicians posed in front of a drum kit (“Prison rock band, June 26, 1975”) or a stylish couple kissing passionately from adjacent folding chairs (“Passover seder, April 5, 1976”). Social rituals—team activities, celebrations, affection for animals, cake—are surprising to situate within prison walls. But there are also grimmer and more obvious glimpses of prison living: an unnerving index of scarred skin and ugly wounds, denuded metal-springed beds, torn uniforms.
Author Rachel Kushner penned one of the book’s several interspersed texts. She has written extensively about prison both in fiction (the tour-de-force novel The Mars Room) and non-fiction (her affecting 2019 piece for New York Times Magazine about prison abolition activist Ruth Wilson Gilmore). Here, Kushner remarks on how these images depict “life controlled and monitored, but also that which is beyond the bounds and reach of supervision, whether a moment of joy or an act of creativity, or one of violence.” She recounts how, when she once asked a prisoner whether he ever felt happiness, he responded: “I carry all four seasons with me.” This book too carries all four seasons: violence and levity, numbness and warmth, yearning and despair.
Poor guides her pupils to confront this all-season spectrum of emotion, as evidenced by the assignments sampled here. “Just think about filling up the photograph with words and gestures … you are collaborating with the photographer and in a way, creating a new work that makes use of the image,” she coaxed. Images—presented here centered across the fold—bear wide margins riddled with handwritten text. The uneven scrawl encroaches on the notion of the pristine, sacrosanct image and intimately personalizes the experience of taking in an image. On a photo of a farmer’s market, one inmate wrote out a recipe for homemade pumpkin pie; another ascribed his grandmother’s name to a black-and-white portrait subject. Inmates’ comments on the archival prison photos range in tone from banal observation (“very nice sunglasses”) to existential angst (“…there is a fine line between happy to see someone and sad to see that person at the same time. Look into the mother’s eyes, she’s caught between the two.”) Poor’s exercises entrusted these men with rare agency, in a forum in which they had absolutely none.
Extending this trust, there are text excerpts by, and conversations with, prisoners. Ruben Ramirez, who was in prison over a decade, assesses what Poor drew out in him, saying in a transcribed dialogue: “You would instruct us on how to look, but not feed us too much, so we would have to interpret it the way we saw it.” Then-inmate Michael Nelson’s affecting, wistful essay analyzing comparative images by Richard Misrach and Hiroshi Sugimoto—both featuring blank oversized screens—is reprinted as it was submitted: meticulously handwritten and single-spaced on lined paper. Nelson’s words touch on the pain of going unacknowledged: in Sugimoto’s work, he considers “the illuminated screen playing the role of a mouth whose light screams to be heard, to be seen; the EXIT signs act as annoying reminders of where all the absent characters in this photograph have gone.” Poor, too, identified this overwhelming human need to be seen and substantiated, articulating that “photography offers people the opportunity to recognize themselves in an image.”
Creative vectors are not a catch-all for reformation, but it’s moving to see the way images meaningfully allow people to reach into themselves and to reach others. Photography not only reframes the gaze but, more importantly, our awareness of its fundamental malleability.