Chicago--Thirteen years ago, photographer
Richrad Lawson, fresh out of the US Army Signal Corps, was arrested for
possession of marijuana in his hometown of Moline, Illinois, and sentenced
to a term of two to six years in prison. He was sent to Statevile Penitentiary
in Lockport, where he was assigned as an inmate photographer in the Bureau of
One day, while rummaging trhough an old file cabinet in the darkroom,
Lawson discovered more than 200 glass plate negatives documenting life at nearby
Joliet prison between 1890 and 1930. Some were broken, many were scratched, but
all seemed to Lawson to be made competently, and with a peculiar kind of care.
Two years later, Lawson was released and in 1979, after taking a position as
visiting assistant professor of photoggraphy at Southern Illinois University,
he received a grant from the Illinois Humanities Council to print the Joliet
negatives, and another in 1980
from the National Endowment for the Arts, to
organize a traveling show.
Many of the pictures in the exhibit are mug shots; grim portraits of
faces sentenced to darkness. Others, pictures of well-dressed wardens posed
ceremoniously in wooden chairs, were made during formal sittings. In a photographs
of a female prisoner's room, lifht filters invitingly through a white-curtained
window, pouring onto a dainty wicker chair and hand-braided rugs. In a picture of
a 7 x 7 x 4-foot cell inhabited by two men, the shadows at the edge of the fram seem
to hide the bleakness of enclosure, only hinting at the empty existences within.
Historically, documentary photography has served to reveal "truth,"
to expose painful facts that we would rather ignore. Photographs can just as easily
lie, however, distorting and misrepresenting reality, and perhaps this is so of the
Joliet prison photographs. These pictures were made by a few
unknown prisoner-photographers who were told what and when to
photograph, and who most likely were closely watched by guards while they photographed.
" What's missing from these pictures, " says, Lawson, "is the feeling
of pain and real horror of prison, where most of the time nothing ever happens,
but you live in constant fear." Yet if the Joliet pictures fail to unveil all of the
truths of prison, their very detachment expresses a kind of hopeless acceptance. Though
they were intended merely as records of one period in one prison's history, the Joliet
pictures communicate more than the size and shape of a cell or the number of men in the
east wing. Their very inability to openly impart a personal vision becomes in itself a
way of describing the captivity of the artists' sensibilities.
The Joliet Prison Photographs will be on view at the Columbia Gallery
of the Chicago Center for Contemporary Photography through October 24.