Published June 19, 2014
UB faculty member Bruce Jackson creates images as a connection between teaching and communicating social activism.
“Many of my photographs were made because I was doing something else,” like attending an anti-war rally in Washington, D.C., or visiting a civil rights tent encampment, explains Jackson, SUNY Distinguished Professor and James Agee Professor in the Department of English.
And while some photographers place and pose subjects, “All of my photographs are of real things: real people, real events, real places,” Jackson says. “Except for one novel and a bit of other fiction, all of my books, films, recordings and photographs are about things I saw and heard, places I was, people I knew or hung out with.”
Jackson’s photographs have been widely published and exhibited. His most recent exhibition, “Being There: Bruce Jackson, Photographs 1962-2012,” will feature more than 300 works from his extensive photographic archives of landscapes, prison life, structures and people. It will be on view in the East Gallery of the Burchfield Penney Art Center at Buffalo State College from Feb. 8 through June 16.
The exhibition will open with a reception from 5:30-7:30 p.m. Feb. 8. The reception is free for Burchfield Penney members; nonmembers are asked to make a contribution.
“In the social sciences, as in the physical sciences, there are certain members of the community that serve as a bellwether for the future developments in social thought,” says Scott Propeack, the exhibition’s curator. “Bruce Jackson is such a person, from the sharing of the story of the incarcerated through the conditions of our industrial landscape. He doesn’t tell us what to do, but points us in a direction that needs attention.”
Adds Burchfield Penney Executive Director Anthony Bannon: “The range of his subjects is breathless in the exhibition and challenges any attempt to connect the dots. As with those public intellectuals who came before him, Jackson feeds on the public life and its celebrity. We hope that ‘Being There’ will make connections that will continue Jackson’s feeding frenzy for ideas.”
Well-known in some circles as the dean of prison culture, Jackson began visiting prisons in the South while on a Harvard fellowship in the early 1960s—first to record black convict work songs and then to interview inmates about their life in and out of the criminal justice system.
In fact, it was during a visit in the early 1970s to Cummins Prison in Grady, Ark.—at the time considered to be the worst prison in the U.S.—that Jackson believes he became a photographer.
“I thought about doing an article for The New York Times Magazine or Harper’s about what had happened in that unconstitutional prison,” he recalls. “During that visit, I exposed 29 rolls of 35 mm film. When I got home and developed the film and looked at my notes, I decided that the story of Cummins could best be told visually.
“I think that’s when I became a photographer,” he says, “as opposed to someone who just took photographs now and then, which we all do and which I still do when I’m hanging out with family or friends or see something that catches my eye.”
In the years since, he has written or edited 32 books—his most recent, “Inside the Wire: Photographs from Texas and Arkansas Prisons,” is forthcoming this spring from the University of Texas Press—and his photographs have been exhibited at venues that include the Albright-Knox Art Gallery; Galleri View, Oslo; and Circolo Gianni Bosio, Rome. His work is part of the permanent collections of the Albright Knox, George Eastman House, Bibliothèque national de France and the Library of Congress. In collaboration with his wife, SUNY Distinguished Teaching Professor Diane Christian, he has also created three feature-length and three short documentaries.
A UB faculty member since 1967, Jackson is the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1971 and a Grammy nomination in 1974. The French government has twice honored him: in 2002 as Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres, and in 2012 as Chevalier de l’Ordre National du Mérite.
He also has served as president of the American Folklore Society and chairman of the Board of Trustees of the American Folklife Center in the Library of Congress.