THE ROOT of the word penitentiary is "penitence,"
and from the glum, dulled expression seen in most of the inmates' faces in "Joliet
Prison Photographs," it seems that the good work of penitence was done at severe
cost to every vital sign of life. These men look like zombies, and if you blame
that on the old formality of photography (circa 1900 to 1915) rather than on the old
barbarities of penology, then you probably are missing the point.
The 73 pictures in the show are not, actually, from the Illinois State Penitentiary
in Joliet but from its younger sister, Stateville, in Lockport (part of the Joliet
system). A box of glass negatives was found there in a basement darkroom by
Richard Lawson, a photographer who in 1969 began serving two years for marijuana
possession (so much for "old" barbarities).
Today Lawson is a visiting assistant professor of photography at
Southern Illinois University. And the handsom, harrowing exhibit curated by him
is at the Center for Contemporary Photography of Columbia College, 600 S.
Michigan. You can see it there through Oct. 24.
When Lawson arrived, the Joliet system had progressed from the
era of these views. Even that was a fairly progressive time, thanks to Gov.
Edward Dunne and the humane warden appointed by him, Edmund Allen. The honor system, daily
recreation, the end of the silence rule--Allen made such reforms in faith that
"there is some good in every man."
Probably so. Yet prison is prison. You can't reform it in essence,
and you can't pretty up its image. These documentary pictures, mad, Lawson
believes, by inmates now unknown, are as chill and still as flesh upon a morgue
slab. They have become quaint in detail--the antiseptic neatness of striped
uniforms and the church starch of old wardes' collars, the monk's robes of the
prison chaplains and the way Teddy Roosevelt peeps from a picture behind
glistening new heating machinery. But they are life-denying in spirit.
Not made by any apparent impulse to art, the images fit well into the
current art cult of deadpan objectivity. Inventory shots of brooms, chairs, instruments:
It's ancestral minimalism. The shot of a numbingly clean corridor, symmetrical in its
recession of barred cells, could be right out of a portfolio by Lewis Baltz. And the view
of another cellblock trashed in a riot--did Lee Friedlander set up this one?
Yet to bracket such pictures in an art parenthesis is foolish. They
are not about art. Art brings little to them. We can admire the spider's lace of
cracks upon an old glass negative, or the Rembrandt lighting on a prison baker, or
the picks, knives upon a table, but what we are then doing is preening
ourselves upon the ignoble art of evasion; we are looking but
not really looking.
To see truly means to wince a bit from the grim stares of the cons,
posed like standing dead men against a mirror that repeats them in profile. It
means to see the irony in the affection of a floral tribute to a dead assistant
warden "who was on the square with us." It means to strip aside the posed air
of a gent's club for penitential criminals and look into eyes hardened, somethimes
hounted. It means to be jolted, in the show's final, composite image, by the shot
of a suicide hung in his cell.
RICHARD Lawson also is having a show of his own work at Columbia. Again,
there is a deadpan documentary feeling and a baleful light that is often pushed
to extremes of flashy coldness bleeding away into dark corners. Yet there is
also a humor full of life, even when it tuckthe tail of its punch line underneath
a mute, banal objectivity. Lawson, 35, seems to have kept the impudent free
spirit that once got him into trouble with marijuana.
Like many photographers, he loves America's surplus idiocy. With
a solemn grin, he looks at people who are very intently inspecting "Elvis
Presley's Last Vacation Car" (and the silence of a photograph makes the perfect
music). He sees Miss Illinois posed in blinding cheer with two paunchy Pontiac
dealers. He observes three youn "photographers" snapping at a nude girl in
Don's Body Shop--the joke of this one is that the snappers have bodies in need
of shop work.
There are harsher pictures, almost indictments: a wretched shed
of snakes at the Regal Reptile Ranch, which makes you think of Truman Capote's
"Hand-Carved Coffins," and the giant, pathetic statue of an Indian slumped on a
withered horse, appearing crushed under the roof of an Oklahoma museum. But Lawson
is at his best a humorist, and best of all in his view of the gaudy, huckstering
barn for the World's Largest Steer ("10,000 Hamburgers on the Hoof). While the big
beast is invisible, and grows in our imagination to cosmic hamburger size, a
ticket seller stares with slumped boredom at her little son, who is entranced
by Lawson's approach.
As if our eyes needed more, gallery director Steven Klindt has
opened his season with yet another show: lithographs and silk-screen images
by Todd Walker of Tucson, Ariz. They are layered, floating things, with soft,
silver undertones shimmering through delicate greens, blues and pinks, at
times preciously artistic but more often using nudes and desert themes with
graceful intensity. Best of all, because most complex and poised: the "Fragments
of Melancholy," in which nude women are circled around by fragments of poetry
in differing typefaces; its moody with the hot thoughts and warm afterthoughts