Nigel Poor, The San Quentin Project

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2021 by Aperture (here). Hardcover, 11 x 8.5 inches, with tipped-in annotated cover photograph. 168 pages, with 97 images, many bearing handwritten inscriptions. Edited by Nigel Poor, with texts by Nigel Poor, Reginald Dwayne Betts, George Mesro Coles-El, Rachel Kushner, Michael Nelson, Ruben Ramirez, and Lisa Sutcliffe, and author interviews of Michael Nelson and Ruben Ramirez. Designed by A2/SW/HK, London. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: One of photography’s unique gifts is its ability to convey the world through another person’s eyes. You can stand in a photographer’s shoes for a moment and see exactly what they saw, and perhaps share in their experience. For pictures made inside prisons, the burden of conveyance is especially demanding. Prisons are not easy for most people to visit or to photograph. Even when photographers gain access, the flow of resulting images to the outside world is typically throttled. But that trickle is all we’ve got, so we must make the most of it.  

Given these constraints, the archival prison photography in The San Quentin Project is quite a gold mine. The images manage the delicate art of conveyance with aplomb, transporting the reader behind the prison wall, if only for a brief moment. They were shot on 4 x 5 film by correctional officers at San Quentin in the 1960s and 1970s, then held in storage for decades before finding their way through an information officer into the hands of Nigel Poor. Some of her curatorial choices fall into expected stereotypes. A chalk outline marred by blood stains is captioned “Death By Stabbing”. A stitched up forearm on a medical tray is captioned “Self Inflicted Wound”. Other photos document escapes, suicides, assaults, and contraband. Most of the major prison tropes are covered, and the reader might breathe a sigh of relief to experience them vicariously. “Prison changes everything,” writes Reginald Dwayne Betts in the foreword, a sentiment confirmed in disquieting images.  

It’s Poor’s unexpected selections which, for me at least, are more interesting. A strange scene of two men carving a giant chicken out of ice, for example. What on earth is happening? Or a picture of kids awkwardly scaled by the camera into a playpen. A posed portrait of crouching tennis players (repeated as the cover photo) is curt and ordinary, yet seems to withhold buried secrets. A photograph captioned “A/C [Adjustment Center]” is even more mysterious. It shows a spartan prison cell with mattress, drain, and some wall fixtures. In combination with the caption, the photo invites an almost boundless range of speculation. Adjustment to what exactly? Many others defy easy decoding. “It’s everything about life in prison that you see when you go in there, the most depressing and funny and bizarre,” she told Aperture, where a selection first appeared in the Spring 2018 Prison Nation issue.

There are fifty-two such photographs in total, making up roughly a third of the book. In general terms they are documentary, but they throw the reader off balance with malleable interpretations. Here is the brutality of prison life, but through the winking lens of art curation. Poor seems to have made her selections with one eye on criminality and the other on Evidence (the Sultan/Mandel classic gets a brief shoutout in Lisa Sutcliffe’s text). Such an approach will be familiar to readers of the recent book How To Look Natural In Photos (reviewed here), which also sifted authoritarian life through an ironic gaze. That recontextualization pioneered new visual channels, it is true. But it also defanged the material’s original menace. A similar effect is at play in The San Quentin Project. If you are expecting a picture book which exposes the injustices of the American prison industry— 4% of the world’s population, 21% of its prisoners—this is not quite that. But I think its potential is even stronger.

The archival pictures are the core of The San Quentin Project, but they comprise only one of several chapters. The book has the cluttered collaborative spirit of a busy office, its final report a rambling treatise with pictures, essays, interviews, and notes from multiple contributors. There are so many parts that the compilation feels unwieldy at first. But after a few passes, the sections sort themselves out. For those keeping score at home, there are annotated fine art photographs, archival pictures (mentioned above), and more archival pictures with annotations. There are personal essays from prisoners Betts and George Misro-Coles El, critiques by Rachel Kushner and Lisa Sutcliffe, two prisoner interviews, and a lengthy review handwritten by former inmate Michael Nelson. Poor’s deliberate inclusion of prisoners in the authorship is a wise move, and one which feels contemporary, since the presumption of outside experts speaking for alienated subjects may be fading. Poor has covered all the bases. The only glaring omission is photographs made by inmates. Those would have been informative, but (small factoid as telling as any image) cameras are forbidden to San Quentin prisoners.

I’ll get to these many ingredients shortly, but first let’s take a step back. Who is Nigel Poor? She is a photographer and photo professor at CSU Sacramento (~80 miles northeast of San Quentin). Through a random pictorial encounter she became interested in Kresty Prison in St. Petersburg, Russia, and then in prisons generally. In 2011 this led to her involvement with the Prison University Project at San Quentin (now called Mount Tamalpais College, as the text repeatedly reminds us), teaching art history to prisoners with colleague Doug Dertinger. In addition to her photo background, she is the co-creator of the podcast Ear Hustle, which explores San Quentin life from the perspective of inmates.

One of the class exercises Poor developed at San Quentin was called “Mapping”, in which she sought reactions to fine art photographs. “Imagine you are a visual explorer looking into the image to see how it is revealed to you specifically,” she instructed. These directions might be roughly similar to an introductory exercise in any art school. But inside San Quentin her pupils had little photographic background and they were viewing material far removed from their daily experience. The full syllabus is not specified—images had to pass muster with San Quentin officials—but it included at least five well-known photos by Eggleston, Shore, Sternfeld, Hilliard, and Friedlander. Each is reproduced twice in the book with copious notes hand-written by Poor’s students, their observational skills sharpened by confinement into hypersensitive antennae. “Prison requires a precise attunement to surroundings,” Poor explained in a recent interview, “which makes many incarcerated people natural photographers. So much that happens in there is not verbal. It’s a change in the feeling in the room or somebody who is standing in a different position.” 

A warning to photo professors elsewhere viewing the resulting mappings: prepare to be jealous. The level of commitment and energy demonstrated is off-the-charts. Poor has filtered out sterling examples for the book. And prison imposes a degree of artistic deprivation and downtime that most outside schools cannot (a system custom designed for prolific art critique?). Even with those caveats, these mappings would hold their own in any company. Photographers such as Carolyn Drake, Jim Goldberg, and Bieke Depoorter have also explored handwritten annotation, inviting subjects to inscribe atop prints of themselves. Allen Ginsberg, Ed Templeton, and Boris Mikhailov have scrawled captions in their own margins. Poor’s exercise was distinct from either. Her students encountered photographs with no ready pretext.

Ah, to see these classics again for the first time! Alas, most readers will not be so lucky. Browsing this section is like a visit with familiar friends. The annotations keep things fresh. An anonymous analysis of Shore’s El Paso (from Uncommon Places) enumerates an array of minute details, from shadow placement to parking prices to a tiny conquistador icon atop a utility pole. A mapping of Friedlander’s Canton, Ohio (from Factory Valleys) by Monta Kevin Tindall surrounds the image with wide margins of small text: Air hoses give curves and unique angles to the picture. Arm of pole has the appearance of same length of the woman’s arm. Yes she’s married. Marriage finger on her cat hands that bring yards of rope you see to help her husband for the family. No minutiae goes unnoticed. Every observation is hand-written with painstaking attention in a spectrum of inks, colors, and scripts, on 17 by 11 inch paper. The organic compounds of photo and annotation are wonderful works of art on their own, almost museum worthy. 

Poor’s mapping exercises serve as rough counterpoints to the archival pictures. The observer/subject dynamic is reversed, and prisoners have a chance to see through another person’s eyes. The modernist staples chosen by Poor may be unrelatable on some level (all made by white male art world darlings, for starters) but they do document life outside of prison, and so hold a natural fascination. To step outside the penitentiary walls for a moment must be a welcome respite, even if just in one’s head. Resulting mappings are charged with excitement, as if exclaimed by kids at an amusement park. Look at this! Look at that! 

Reactions approach apotheosis in an extended critique by Michael Nelson, critiquing two well-known photographs of movie screens by Richard Misrach and Hiroshi Sugimoto. Instead of overwriting the photographs, Nelson’s essay is handwritten separately on notepaper. It flows thoughtfully for nine double spaced pages, each one reproduced in the book, a heartfelt rumination which will make an impression on any reader (the full essay and pictures were published as an artist folio by TBW in 2014). Obviously Poor was enamored. She follows Nelson’s essay in the book with an interview in which he reveals, amazingly, that he was in the hole (a barbaric form of solitary confinement) when he wrote it. “You were stuck in the hole, and yet your writing is spacious and generous in the way it invites us in,” Poor inquires, to which Nelson responds, “I did it in a space where I couldn’t even hear my own thoughts…But I had something to focus on. I remember sitting there with just the little ink filler of the pen. I was able to tune out everything else. It was like I was in those pictures.” It’s enough to put a dent in any teacher’s heart. 

The interview with Nelson describes prison life with the force of first-hand reporting. The San Quentin sensationalized by pop culture—with a bay view and celebrity inmates like Merle Haggard, Charles Manson, Danny Trejo, Art Pepper, and Sirhan Sirhan—fades away. What’s left is the harsh routine of captivity: dull, dangerous, and dehumanizing. The interview is placed near the beginning of the book, before the reader engages with any images, and it is bookended afterward with a companion essay by George Mesro Coles-El. His words put the reader in his shoes as well as any photo could, offering a measure of salvation through art. “To everyone on the outside looking in, take a moment to feel isolated from the world around you…Then, think of a chance to reach over the walls…That’s how it feel to be a part of this project.” This may be the most powerful endorsement of photography that I can recall. 

After mapping the photography canon and curating archival pictures, the two strains intersect in the book’s third picture section: “Mapping The San Quentin Archive”. Here the inmates apply mapping annotations to Poor’s old San Quentin stash. Their observations are as keen and incisive as with the earlier material. But the subject hits closer to home this time, and bemused observations are occasionally supplanted with a more aggressive tone. A picture of a shackled inmate is marked with bold lettering: FEAR and CAGED RAGE. A photo of a finger pointing at broken glass garners the reaction: Each pane represents a barrier that the prison inmate has to deal with on a daily basis. Other pictures reveal sensitivities heightened by withdrawal. An ordinary photo of a woman giving attention to a prisoner is captioned How special is this moment to him? Will it stay with him or be forgotten by the end of the day? Another photo of three food service workers, seemingly anodyne, is inscribed She is a vision in that polkadot dress! 

If prison is characterized by deprivation, The San Quentin Project is its opposite: a motherlode of information. Pictures, notes, and artifacts come in a flood like graffiti scrawled in an overlooked cell corner. The contents would tangle without careful design and sequencing. Fortunately Aperture is up the task. The tipped in cover image with annotation is a deft touch, showing a taste of what’s inside while remaining distinct. The interior photos are reproduced on matte paper. They might lack the sharp contrast of a glossy surface, but it’s hard to nitpick with images as rich and detailed as these. For the San Quentin archival images, this is surely their best expression yet. If the reproductions of Sternfeld, Shore, et al suffer in comparison to their appearances in other books, that’s forgivable. The plethora of surrounding notes compensates for any leanings to perfectionism. Taken in total the effect is quite stimulating. The whole thing took me a few nights to digest. I suspect any inmate in a bare cell would get even more mileage. But those prison prospects are uncertain. Are books like this allowed there, either in the context of a photo class, or (gasp) freely circulating? I have no idea. As much as these photos let me see through a prisoner’s eyes, some barriers to understanding remain unbreachable.

Collector’s POV: The photographs are a mix of annotated fine art pictures, and archival photos from the collection of San Quentin Prison. They are not available for collectors to purchase.

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