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Prison pics; the Gazette remembered

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FROM THE DRAWER: Photo of Cummins inmate.
  • FROM THE DRAWER: Photo of Cummins inmate.

Photographs made at the Arkansas penitentiary in the early part of the 20th century and lifted by Bruce Jackson, a professor at SUNY at Buffalo, from a drawer there are the best reason to buy “Pictures from a Drawer: Prison and the Art of Portraiture” (Temple University Press, paperback, $34.95).

Stark black and white and blurry pictures of men and women, in their stripes or ragged clothes, their prison number across the bottom, have the same draw as Disfarmer's dead-on, direct portraits. These mugs are grim, sometimes blank and strangely unlike contemporary faces, the result, perhaps, of the photographer's intention to only create a record. Jackson, who previously published a book of his own photographs made at Cummins, posted many of these early 20th century images on his website, csac.buffalo.edu, in 2004. He's churned them for this just-released book, which he prefaces with 50 pages of commentary on how he obtained the photos (he stole them from a drawer at Cummins in 1975), philosophical musings on the art of portraiture, the details of the photographs (size, setting, date) and dozens of unanswered and, after a while, annoying questions (a paragraph from a section on the women's photos is a series of eight questions, beginning with: “Am I eroticizing them? Were the photographers? Were the women prisoners, or some of them, eroticizing the encounter? Do women relate to a camera differently from than men? Did these women? …”). Jackson excuses his pinching the pictures — the property of the state of Arkansas — by referring to them as “unneeded duplicates,” something historians would take issue with. The pictures do have unusual power and perhaps musings on why that's so are in order, but Jackson's exposition is less academic than scattershot. Much of his writing — such as references to Greek funerary portraits at al-Fayyum in Egypt — feels like filler.

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