For more than forty years, Bruce Jackson has been documenting--in books, photographs, audio recording and film--inmates' lives in American prisons. In November 1975, he acquired a collection of old ID photos while he was visiting the Cummins Unit, a state prison farm in Arkansas. They are published together for the first time in this remarkable book. The 121 images that appear here were likely taken between 1915-1940. As Jackson describes in an absorbing introduction, the function of these photos was not portraiture-- their function was to "fold a person into the controlled space of a dossier." Here, freed from their prison "jackets" and printed at sizes far larger than their originals, these one-time ID photos have now become portraits. Jackson's restoration transforms what were small bureaucratic artifacts into moving images of real men and women. Pictures from a Drawer also contains an extraordinary description of everyday life at Cummins prison in the 1950s, written originally by hand and presented to Jackson in 1973 by its author, a longtime inmate.
In a stimulating introductory essay accompanying this collection of extraordinary photographic portraits, Jackson (The Story Is True) recalls visiting in 1975 Arkansas's Cummins state prison farm, where an inmate invited him to fill his pockets with about 200 discarded prisoner identification photographs, likely dating from 1915 to 1940. Drawn at random from a forgotten drawer, these worn and badly yellowed artifacts were (absent the dossiers they served and enhanced) anonymous traces of both a system of control and the lives-male and female, African-American and white-lived inside it. Their publication in large portrait format awaited 21st-century digital technology to make their restoration and reclamation possible. Shrewdly, Jackson balances their remarkable refurbishment with a strong sense of provenance (retaining staple holes and creases, for example), while eschewing any attempt to connect each haunting image with a particular crime or narrative. Given unprecedented and (from the perspective of their original purpose) utterly unintended scope, the human dimensions of these images grant each an irreversible dignity for the first time, while simultaneously taking on the essential characteristic Jackson names: they become "mirrors" of ourselves. (Mar.)
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Temple University Press
March 27, 2009
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