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faces from the Ark pen
December 21, 2004 3:08 PM   Subscribe

Mirrors. Documentarian Bruce Jackson found "a group of about two hundred 3x4" identification photographs made between 1914 and 1937... in a drawer in the Arkansas penitentiary in the summer of 1975"; this (slideshow) is the online record of an exhibition.
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.
Many of them are haunting; this one has been turned by time into a work of art. (Via Ramage.)
posted by languagehat (34 comments total)

 
Oh man, this rocks. It reminds me of Walker Evans. This one is pretty artsy too. Some of them look awfully young to be prisoners.
posted by sciurus at 3:14 PM on December 21, 2004


[This is good].

My favourite.
posted by purephase at 3:15 PM on December 21, 2004


Arresting images.

[this is good]
posted by Rumple at 3:20 PM on December 21, 2004


I kind of think that last one is a woman, sciurus. She could be in her 20s. Maybe she was a con artist, tricking people into believing she was an orphaned pre-teen boy so she could steal their fortunes in the night.

Or something.
posted by bcwinters at 3:27 PM on December 21, 2004


The slideshow without its weird frame.
posted by metaculpa at 3:27 PM on December 21, 2004


This one looks quite the saucy minx.
I'm wondering if the hat is part of her prison attire? And did they make her little dog go to prison as well?
posted by Secret Life of Gravy at 3:40 PM on December 21, 2004


She has a really low user-number.
posted by interrobang at 3:46 PM on December 21, 2004


I love this one. I imagine him as a Confederate veteran. He looks as though he has a strong character.
posted by darkmatter at 3:49 PM on December 21, 2004


This kind of bothers me. I guess you give up some right to privacy when you commit a crime, but it seems like these pictures should be destroyed when you have served your sentence, or when a reasonable amount of time has passed.
posted by thirteen at 3:53 PM on December 21, 2004


Great link.

For a moment, I thought that this man was a young Don Knotts.
posted by fizz-ed at 4:01 PM on December 21, 2004


Great link, thanks!
posted by greasy_skillet at 4:02 PM on December 21, 2004


Lovely.
posted by The God Complex at 4:03 PM on December 21, 2004


This is why I like MetaFilter. Thanks Languagehat.
posted by KevinSkomsvold at 4:11 PM on December 21, 2004


Thank you. Wonderfully moving.

And speaking of the youthfulness of some of the prisoners...
posted by jokeefe at 4:12 PM on December 21, 2004


it seems like these pictures should be destroyed when you have served your sentence, or when a reasonable amount of time has passed.

It's not as if a part of your soul is captured therein.
posted by rushmc at 4:34 PM on December 21, 2004


Nor is it like they signed a release, or had any ability to refuse to have these pictures taken. Privacy should trump voyeurism.
posted by thirteen at 4:42 PM on December 21, 2004


I think much the same about old war photos. Here is a link to somewhere I know very well. Just look at the faces, they all appear very old and some really were. In the cemetaries it is easy to find 45 year old men married with children (privates)

Don't know where the link went?
posted by Ranger03 at 5:01 PM on December 21, 2004


I am reminded of this. Interesting.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 5:23 PM on December 21, 2004


thirteen - i'd take the opposite view. i'm leery of a state where they destroy records of who was incarcerated, for how long, and for what. in the early 20th century in the U.S. South it wasn't unheard of for illiterate, poor people to be convicted and then to disappear into the prison system.
posted by stevis at 5:52 PM on December 21, 2004


this guy is probably what George Clooney's character in "O Brother, Where Art Thou" really looked like.
posted by stevis at 5:53 PM on December 21, 2004


or whatever reason, they have been deprived of liberty

That reason may be of the essence. Otherwise it's cheap sentimentality.
posted by semmi at 6:54 PM on December 21, 2004


There's as much power and expression in these portraits as those captured by photographers like Diane Arbus (particularly her images of asylum inmates), Richard Avedon (in his book "In The American West") and Mike Meyers - better known as Disfarmer.

Thanks, sciurus - a great find.
posted by ericb at 7:00 PM on December 21, 2004


The portrait which darkmatter references above has hints of Paul Newman.
posted by ericb at 7:04 PM on December 21, 2004


Don't thank me, thank languagehat.
posted by sciurus at 7:05 PM on December 21, 2004


Oops ... my mistake ... thanks languagehat. I agree with you on reminders of Walker Evans.
posted by ericb at 7:07 PM on December 21, 2004


Harrowing.
posted by cosmonik at 7:15 PM on December 21, 2004


omniously beautiful
posted by onkelchrispy at 7:47 PM on December 21, 2004


What amazing faces. Thanks, languagehat. I think the Widelux images are interesting too.
posted by lobakgo at 7:57 PM on December 21, 2004



thirteen - i'd take the opposite view. i'm leery of a state where they destroy records of who was incarcerated, for how long, and for what. in the early 20th century in the U.S. South it wasn't unheard of for illiterate, poor people to be convicted and then to disappear into the prison system.


Assuming you are right, and we do need those records, why are these files detached from their specific information. How did they manage to end up in the hands of a private citizen who is in a position to exploit them? As records they are meaningless, but the means of obtaining them is nothing but disrespect for the people pictured. It is possible that they were bad people, but decent people do not approve of prison rape as darwinlike justice, and they should not approve of this either.
posted by thirteen at 8:06 PM on December 21, 2004


This is wonderful, thanks, languagehat. These pictures vividly recall (anticipate?) for me Deborah Luster's "One Big Self," a series of photographic portraits of Louisiana prisoners etched onto aluminium index-cards, with details of the prisoners engraved on the back. The prisoners chose how they were photographed. What must be hundreds of these cards are stored in a crude, heavy, all-metal card catalogue. You can pull them out of the drawers and look through them, handle them, and arrange them on a small desk. It's very moving (examples, background). It's currently in the San Francisco MOMA.
posted by carter at 9:16 PM on December 21, 2004


Amazing stuff - was going to comment on the Disfarmer resemblance of some of them but ericb beat me to it. Thanks, languagehat.
posted by contraposto at 9:32 PM on December 21, 2004


so stunning.
posted by moonbird at 4:38 AM on December 22, 2004


As records they are meaningless, but the means of obtaining them is nothing but disrespect for the people pictured.

Why do you put so much emphasis on images of dead people which might much more reasonably be considered part of the historical record? I didn't see you protesting the site that was once posted here that puts up "found" family photos for the world to see, and yet no releases were signed in that case either. I think the burden of proof that the public has no right to such imagery is on you. In fact, I'm not at all clear just at the moment that there is much of an argument to be made that anyone should have a proprietary ownership of any spontaneous or documentary imagery at all (but that's a larger issue).
posted by rushmc at 6:14 AM on December 22, 2004


Excellent, makes me wonder, for most of these folks I guess this is the one and only time they were photographed, never as kids or at work or with family on holidays like many of us today. So now our collective memory of them is as felons, forever captured in only a single moment in time. Almost like whatever crime they committed was the most significant thing they ever did in their lives, I sure hope not.
posted by scheptech at 1:08 PM on December 22, 2004


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