Deborah Luster - One Big Self
by Deborah Luster and C.D. Wright
Editor's Note: Excerpted from The Tenth Dorothea Lange-Paul Taylor Prize: Deborah Luster and C. D. Wright in Collaboration, a CDS Publication from the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University.
Winners of the Lange-Taylor Prize last year, photographer Deborah Luster and poet C.D. Wright set out to produce, in their words, "an authentic document of Louisiana's prison population through image and text — a document to ward off forgetting, an opportunity for the inmates to present themselves as they would be seen, bringing what they own or borrow or use: work tools, objects of their making, messages of their choosing, their bodies, themselves."
They wanted to tell the stories and present the faces of these prisoners — simply and directly. In fact their work had already begun. In 1998 Deborah Luster started photographing in three Louisiana prisons: the Transylvania Prison Farm, a minimum-security facility housing drug offenders and parole violators; Louisiana Correctional Institute for Women, a looo-bed minimum-, medium- and maximum-security facility located in St. Gabriel; and Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola, a maximum-security facility housing more than 5,000 men on 18,000 acres of fertile Delta, surrounded on three sides by the Mississippi River.
Luster had been searching for many years for a project that would somehow address the 1988 murder of her mother. As she participated in another photography project, documenting the impact of poverty on the lives of people living innortheast Louisiana, the roads turned toward the region's prisons. "While driving around the countryside, I passed a small prison on the banks of the Tensas River. Prison certainly seemed a logical place to photograph in the context of thisproject. I parked my truck and knocked on the gate. The warden came out to speak to me and granted me permission to take photographic portraits of any inmate who volunteered to participate and signed the standard release forms. After developing and printing the portraits of the inmates, I knew that I wanted to go back."
Luster and Wright have worked together on a number of projects — sometimes the photographer presents the idea, sometimes the writer does — so as Luster continued her work with the Louisiana inmates, she decided to ask Wright to collaborate. In the summer of 1999, the two visited the prisons together, and Wright was moved to commit to the project.
Luster's photographs of the prisoners — from pictures in the fields to formal portraits against a black backdrop — are printed on metal. In the manner of tintypes, durable snapshot mementos popularized during the i86os and '/os, the portraits feature props and poses chosen by the inmates. The view is inherently personal. The prisoners are presented without bars or other architectural references. The photographer has been commissioned, in a sense, by the inmates to make portraits for their loved ones — trying to ensure a balance between photographer and subject, to connect the viewer, whether mother, child, friend, or stranger to the prisoner. When we look at these images, it's not only the persistent gaze of the prisoner that we see.
The prisoners also see the images. Participating inmates receive a wallet-size copy of each frame taken, usually ten to fifteen images. Luster has photographed more than 700 prisoners and returned more than 20,000 prints. These photographs are sent home, swapped with other prisoners, sent to other institutions or simply contemplated by the inmates. Onreceiving his photos, one Angola inmate remarked, "Damn, I done got old" -prompted by the fact that the prison's stainless steel mirrors allow the men to view only a distorted image of their own reflection.
As Wright accompanies and assists Luster on some of the photographer's makeshift studio shoots, she converses with the inmates and interviews them. A certain amount of procedure is necessary, including release forms. Interviews are informal; participation is voluntary. Luster sends Wright prints from their visits, and the poet responds in her writing. Both Luster and Wright maintain correspondence with several prisoners.
The photographer and the poet have set out to explore the dimensions of the prisoners' lives beyond the crimes thathave come to define them. They are also interested in their incarcerated lives. Through the title of this project, One Big Self, and the work resulting from it, Luster and Wright suggest that our punitive models reflect who we are, just as much as our reward systems do. Everyone somehow is implicated.
For exhibition of these images, photographer Deborah Luster commissioned the fabrication of a black, steel-drawered cabinet that holds the 4" x 5" portraits on metal. Personal information supplied by each inmate is engraved in the back ofeach photo. Viewers remove handfuls of images, shuffle through them, or arrange them on the cabinet top, touching thefaces of Louisiana's "invisible" prison population. The cabinet also houses small handmade books with dedication, epigraphs and basic information on the three prisons represented.
"The images aren't true tintypes but rather silver emulsion on prepared aluminum, used like photographic paper under the enlarger," says Luster. "I wanted the photos to be handled by viewers and to suggest the history of the penal system. This technique on this material seemed to me to address those concerns."
Collaborating with Deborah Luster
"One does what one knows before one knows what one does," the poet Charles Olson flatly noted. When collaborating,the major plan is to get along, to stay out of one another's way, and enter in. This is not so difficult for artists working in a different medium, and when core sensibilities and external quirks line up without much contortion. Actually collaboration is an adventure which adult life mostly expresses in terms of shortages. Deborah Luster and I have worked together for a decade and have been friends since we were students. We come from Arkansas. She from near the Oklahoma line and I from near the Missouri. Our mockingbirds talk back to one _ another over hill and hollow. Sometimes we mine one another's strengths and sometimes we offset one another's shortcomings. And of course, once in a long while we undermine the other's strengths and compound one another's shortcomings. It scarcely matters whether the tongue or the eye leads; / it matters less which follows. We communicate. When Debbie began to photograph in the prisons in Louisiana, I was skeptical that my art could aptly turn itself toward that environment. I felt a queasiness regarding poetry in tandem with portraits of prisoners. I am not partial to illustrative collaborations, and I abhor instances of a charged subject made expedient by aesthetics. Also something about the extra-realism of the institution and the resistance of poetry to theconventions of evidentiary writing, notwithstanding top-notch examples to the contrary: Mandelstam, Akhmatova, Wilde, Valery, Celan, Desnos. After all, I am not them. Then there were the practical issues of geographical distance, my full-time job, family, house, dog and so on and so forth. But Debbie's telephone tales of Transylvania, St. Gabriel and Angola were soul-piercing. I have often honed my instincts against the whetstone of hers. And visiting prisons certainly promised to be antidotal to attending faculty meetings. I agreed to come to Louisiana to see what I could see, to see what she was seeing. It was a summons.
To people from outside its borders, Arkansas has always been an unimaginable destination. "Arkansas is not a part of the world for which Jesus Christ died," lamented a lost nineteenth century traveler. I would like to know what his chronicle would have held had he rambled into Louisiana. "Only in Louisiana is the truth that much stranger than fiction," wrotecreator of the Little Chase children's series, Anne Butler, and her husband former warden, C. Murray Henderson, in one of their co-authored books on Angola State Prison. A few years later Anne Butler survived five bullets from Murray Henderson, once one of Louisiana's most far-sighted and progressive wardens, now serving his retirement as an inmate at Hunt. Only in Louisiana.
Everything about Louisiana seems to constitute itself differently from everywhere else in the US: the food, the idiom, the stuff in the trees, the critters in the water and the laws, Napoleonic, not mother-country common law. The prisons inevitable mirror differences found in the free world. Where they came up with their mirrors is another mystery. Luster's photographs obtain to such incongruities with her own strain of uncanniness. The way bayou people will handfish, stick an arm into a sunken log to pull out a channel cat, her focus enters and retrieves the very elusive immanence she is after
The more prisoners Luster has photographed, the more she has wanted to photograph. Behind every anonymousnumber, a very specific face. The more adept she has become at shooting, the more difficult she seems bent on making the process. All roads become prison roads (in Louisiana, indeed in the country at large, that's a hardening fact). Exceeding a thousand faces, she could not stop; she has not stopped. From prison to prison she drives with her itinerant studio; so the generators for the electric chair used to travel on a flatbed—from prison to prison. I can only visit betwixt and between. I have had to fortify the gaps with distance learning — reading, viewing, corresponding with inmates; taking in Debbie's elaborate telephone tales and elegant metal images.
The world of the prison system springs up adjacent to the free world. As the towns decline, the prisons grow. Asindustries disappear, prisons proliferate. State-funded prison-building surges in New York and California are complemented by private-investment booms in Texas and Tennessee. In Susanville, California, the unrelenting light following theconstruction of a second prison prompted a citizen's crusade to Take Back the Night Sky. The town wanted an economiccure, but had not intended to forfeit the stars. Then there is the perverse marriage of mind and technology known as theSupermax. The inter-relation of poverty, illiteracy, substance and physical abuse, mental illness, race and gender to the prison population is blaring to the naked eye and borne out in the statistics. Of the developed nations, only Russia exceedsour rate of incarceration. The warp in the mirror is of our making.
If we do not go there — if not with our bodies, our minds; if not with our minds, our eyes — we are not likely to register the implications. In prison, men and women — those capable — strive for normalcy. Under every condition, humans will so strive. In Luster's photographs you see men and women looking out through the known range of emotional lenses. Sorrow predominates. There is also an occasional, uninhibited smile even a dimpled grin; also a touch of glamour, camera coyness. And supplication. And defiance. The faces record defeat as well as composure. The gaze, point-blank. A decorous air envelops all. The whole history of portraiture is told here. The known range of responses avail themselves of the viewer. One draws on what one sees even before one knows what one is seeing. It is a summons.
Empathic and dogged, Debbie has been permitted to photograph a wedding, baptism, crucifixion re-enactment, Mardi Gras, Halloween, rodeo, field line, visitor's day and scores of individuals whose sentences have rendered them more or less permanently invisible. To see is to believe, a prison horticulture crew dressed up as boxes of Miracle Gro for Mardi Gras; lockdown uniforms converted into Seusslike characters for a day in the ecclesiastic calendar. Bienvenue en Louisianne.
/ was born in Natchitoches, La. I lived there (in the same house) until my 17th birthday, I moved into a trailer on my father's property (but was at least away from him most of the time, usually).
Can I fix anything? My father used to make me work with him on anything he did: carpentry, electrical, mechanical, plumbing work around the house. We built sheds, overhauled engines, rebuilt 6-wheelers, replaced the roof's shingles, retinned the sheds' roofs -did anything and everything he said to do. I began working for him when I was about 9 years old - until he passed away. Even after I moved into the trailer, I was still expected to "earn my way."
Did I every vote? No, I was 17 years old when I was charged -but I would have because I do believe every vote counts.
Am I good with numbers? Yes, I love anything that involves numbers, math. I even enjoyed calculus!
I don't like to think about my dreams.
When I think of being released, what do I see myself doing? Building a relationship with my son, Nick. Moving away fromLouisiana and working somewhere that doesn't ask about felony convictions on its application.
- S. Lofton, Louisiana Correctional Institute for Women
Lines of Defense including Proceedings from the State of
Louisiane vs. The Convergence of the Ur-real and the Unreal
Q: Where were you on the night in question
A: Watching re-runs
Q: What did you do before
A: Fattened frogs for snakes
Q: Before that
A: Sold monkeys door to door
Q: Did you ever imagine yourself doing something really useful
Q: What's your DOC#
Q: What's your idea of Love, Loss, Mercy, etc.
Q: What can you tell us about your passenger
A: She was a slab of a woman, Your Honor
Q: Which is sadder, a motel or a public John
Q: When did your troubles with the revenue service begin
A: On Kafka's birthday, Your Honor
Q: How many prisons have we passed
A: Just four
Q: Was that a harley or a coffin you were driving
Q: Is that the tattoo that says UTOPIA
A: No, that's the tattoo that says Real Men Eat Pussy
Q: What do you call a flesh wound
A: About the thickness of a pair of panties, Your Honor
Q: What can you tell us about your first victim
A: She was a slab of a woman
Q: Westinghoused or edisoned, your choice
AC or DC
Q: Do you have any pets
A: I kept a dog
Q: How did you get rid of the stains
A: I know hot water sets blood
Q: How do you get rid of dirty chi
A: Ask Jeeves
Q: Do you believe in progress
A: See the black curl under my chin
I live on the ground by day and by night . . .
Q: Whom do you see in the mirror, what is your favorite body of water, and why, what is your idea of a good car, do you like fried pickles, how long were you in school, what was your favorite subject, how old were you when you began to mutilate yourself, what is the nicest thing anyone ever did for you, did you ever have your own room, did you wet the bed, did you pour salt on slugs, did he touch you there, did you ever make anyone something you were proud of, can you carry a tune, do you like okra, have you ever been scared to the core
Q: What did she say
A: Say, Your Honor she say oh my godohmygodohmygod
Say, Your Honor she say oh honey ohhoneyohhoneyno
Reprinted with permission from C.D. Wright