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Photos of Cummins a window into Arkansas history

By Ellis Widner

This article was published May 17, 2009 at 6:00 a.m.

In 1970, Federal Judge J. Smith Henley ruled that conditions at Arkansas' Cummins Prison Farm were unconstitutional.

Photographer Bruce Jackson made eight visits to the prison between 1971 and 1975, taking nearly 4,000 photographs and discovering a treasure of inmate portraits.

Selections from Jackson's photographs and the restored and enlarged inmate portraits are on exhibit at the Arkansas Studies Institute, 401 President Clinton Ave., Little Rock. "Portraits From Prison: A Collection of Photographs From Cummins Prison" hangs at the institute's first floor gallery through June 30. Gallery hours are 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Mondays-Fridays, 9 a.m.-4 p.m. Saturdays. Admission is free; for information call (501) 320-5792.

Jackson, 72, is a State University of New York Distinguished Professor and the Samuel P. Capen Professor of American Culture at the University at Buffalo in Buffalo, N.Y. He is donating the prints to the Arkansas Studies Institute, which will use the prints for future programs.

In an interview with the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, Jackson discussed his experiences at Cummins, among other topics.

Q. The Cummins Prison Farm wasn't your first time to take photographs inside a prison. What motivated you to photograph prisons?

A. I was a graduate student at Indiana University in 1960; I was also performing folk music then. I went to the state prisons in Missouri and Indiana to record music, then got interested in prison as a culture. In 1963, I got a grant from Harvard that let me do whatever I wanted to do for three years ... it changed my life. The only responsibility I had was to go to fancy dinners every Monday when I were in town. I grew up with upper lower class Jewish cooking in Brooklyn, so the formal dinners were an education, too. In the graduate program, I expanded my prison work. I tried to work with the Massachusetts prison system, but it was difficult. I wrote to Texas and they invited me down. I was recording black convict work songs and talking to people. Harvard published a book on it; I started taking photographs as a visual memoir for my writing. So my photography started in service of something else.

I was at Ramsey Prison Farm in Texas when Terrell Don Hutto was the warden; he was a schoolteacher who became a prison warden. In 1970, a federal judge (J. Smith Henley) declared Cummins Prison conditions unconstitutional. Hutto was appointed prison system commissioner in 1971 (by Gov. Dale Bumpers). I knew Hutto would let me roam in the prison and I wanted to see what worst prison in America was like. I stopped by and visited. A year later, I came back, to see how it had changed. I was planning to write about it, but realized I was more interested in taking pictures. Over eight visits (between 1971 and 1975), I shot about 4,000 photos.

The photographs I took at Cummins that I use in exhibits now are from the last year or two of my visits. I learned to look at the place after being there several times. It takes immersion. Photographer Sebastiao Salgado says when he starts out, he uses a telephoto lens. The longer he's there, the shorter the lens is. Then using wide-angle, he's right in the middle. That's when he knows enough to get the images he really wants.

My last visit to Cummins was in the fall of 1975. That was when I got the mug shots.

Q. What was your first impression of Cummins Prison Farm?

A. When I first drove up to the gate in the summer of 1971, my dog was with me in the car. I drove up to a little shack with a guard. The guard was wearing a pistol and I realized he was a prisoner. The only people I saw carrying guns were convicts. There were only a few free world guards. The uniforms were ragged and it was a pretty sorry place. A year later, the food and uniforms were better and there were free world guards.

Q. Did you have a guard walking around Cummins with you?

A. I was always by myself. I never thought I was in danger. My idea ... is that most violent criminals aren't violent all the time. I thought the only danger was being grabbed as a hostage; but the Arkansas prison made it clear there was no negotiation if they did. I felt other prisoners would help me to score points for parole.

Q. Why did you choose to not have captions with the photographs in the exhibit?

A. For me, it's very hard, in a caption, to say anything intelligent without saying a lot. You know from big panels of text at the exhibit that the photographs were taken in Arkansas and when. If you look at these images and see guys picking cotton as guards watch, you don't need a caption. They are self evident. When it's not, I placed pictures in juxtaposition so you can figure out what's going on. I think people are capable of writing richer stories than captions can provide. Captions also are reductive. I'd rather people look and think about it. With the portraits, if I had a crime listed next to them, people would read the face in terms of that information.

The same is true of the death row documentary my wife (Diane Christian) and I made (Death Row). We didn't reveal crimes ... to specify it means you won't see or hear the people. That's why there are no captions for the pictures. It would have kept people from looking.

Also, in Death Row, we interviewed Cary Max Cook, who was on death row 21 years. He was finally proved innocent by DNA testing. If we had identified him as a murderer, we would have been wrong.

Q. How did you find the mug shots and what was your reaction to them?

A. It was my eighth visit to Cummins. I was well known in the prison; I was the curly headed Yankee walking around with two or three cameras around my neck. Nobody got in trouble for anything they said or did in my presence. I was walking down the corridor that connects the gate to the outside to gate into the prison building. The prison I.D.. room was there, that's where inmates got their pictures taken. One of the guys waved me in, said he had something to show me. He opened a drawer that was full of these pictures. It really interested me. He told me to help myself. And I did. They were discards and I filled my pockets with them. I expected to come back and get more, but I didn't return to Cummins after that visit.

My initial reaction was "how interesting." When I got them home and looked at them, I knew I wanted to make them big. The originals are about the size of a driver's license. The faces are beautiful, photos you can read something into, I wanted to make them big, get rid of the yellow coating. I looked for a grant, couldn't get one. I kept them in a cigar box in my study. Then Photoshop came along, giving me all the tools I needed to restore them.

I stripped off the yellow coating covering the pictures, but not the effects of time. These physical objects existed in time, like a piece of antique furniture. You don't want to strip everything off. They have scratches, marks, staples. I kept all of that. I took off the yellow and I adjusted the blacks a bit to bring it back up. It was more of a restoration.

I have a superb digital printer and that's how it happened, 30 years after I got the pictures. I did a book and a touring exhibit of prints from those pictures.

The book, Pictures from a Drawer: Prison and the Art of Portraiture (Temple, $34.95) couldn't have been done years ago.

Q. One of the images from the prison portraits makes me think of actor Johnny Depp immersing himself into a film role.

A. That portrait always reminds me of a famous photo of Lewis Payne (also known as Lewis Thornton Powell), one of the conspirators in President Lincoln's assassination. The jacket Payne is wearing turns up in at least a half dozen of the photos I have. Notice that he's wearing a prison shirt under it. I assume that there was a time when they took pictures of them in a crude version of free world clothes as the time came for them to be released.

Q. What do these prison portraits say to you?

A. The first time I showed them a couple of years ago, people kept coming up to me to talk about them. They would have narratives connected to them ... though there were no captions. They were making up stories ... one of the things this is about is how we look at pictures, how the human face has these possibilities for stories. Faces generally are neutral; some of the women smile. The faces are capable of an infinite number of suggestions; I find them very rich.

Q. You and your wife, Diane Christian, made a prison documentary. Would you tell us more about that?

A. That was in 1979 and it's titled Death Row. It is on DVD from Documentary Educational Resources ( cq). We also did a book that expands on the film. That was last prison thing I did. That burned me out on prisons. We also collaborated on the documentary Out of Order, about nuns coming back into secular world.

Q. What impact did the prison experiences have on you?

A. I learned a lot about a part of our society I would otherwise know nothing about. Convicts say the walls are there to keep outside world out. For most of us, our stories of crime ends with the sentence. The prisoners disappear. It was fascinating to see that world and to understand how thin the line is that separates them from us and how easily we could transgress in a moment and be in that other world.

I learned that the categories into which we place people often do not tell us what we really need to know. It may not be enough and it may not be the right thing.

Q. How did these experiences influence or inform your career as an academic?

A. It is the basis of my career as an academic ... the books, films, photographs ... are the basis for my academic career. My interest is more artistic than sociological.

Q. What do you teach at the University of Buffalo?

A. My wife and I teach a film class together for undergraduates. We introduce and show films and lead discussions afterwards. My graduate classes include one on William Faulkner and a course titled "The Great Depression and the Reinvention of America," which is an examination of 1930s writing. That course was on the books before this economy happened. I also teach a graduate course on field work.

Q. Did your experiences in prison affect your views on corrections and, capital punishment?

A. My experiences informed me about prisons and that life. Morally and practically, I oppose capital punishment.

Q. I understand you are donating the prints on exhibit to the Arkansas Studies Institute.

A. Yes, they will get those prints. The institute has plans for them, and I'm very pleased. It gives those long-dead people a life and I'm happy about that. I think these prints belong here.

Q. Who is your favorite photographer?

A. Walker Evans. I had a show at the Ransom Center at the University of Texas in 1973 of some my first Arkansas photographs. I went to hang the show and found out a show of Evans' photographs was opening the weekend I was there. I was introduced to him, went to his show with him. He asked me why I was there and I nervously told him. He asked to see the pictures and looked at them one by one. I was so nervous, I was in a state of utter terror. I felt like my life was in his hands. He said he loved them and asked me if I'd trade with him. He picked one out and took it with him. But I never got one back from him. He did that to other photographers, I found out later. Evans was taking pictures with a Polaroid and took pictures of us: me, my wife and my son. He gave them to us and signed them. So, I can't complain. I took a picture of him with his Polaroid that I have on my wall.






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