This article is from the archives of the UB Reporter.

"Mirrors" to open in Freudenheim Gallery

Published: September 9, 2004

Reporter Editor


Other than a coroner's photographs of the newly dead, police and prison identification photographs are perhaps the least merciful and most democratic and anonymous of all photographs, says Bruce Jackson, UB Distinguished Professor and Samuel P. Capen Professor of American Culture in the Department of American Studies in the College of Arts and Sciences.

"The lighting is the same for everyone," Jackson notes. "The people being photographed have no interest in the photographs being made; the people making the photographs have no interest in the photographs they have made. There are no names on the prints, and the files connected with them were long ago put somewhere no one now remembers.


"All that remains of these prisoners from 70, 80 and 90 years ago," he says, "are these anonymous images."

"Mirrors," an exhibition based on about 200 3"x4" identification photographs made between 1914 and 1937 that Jackson found in a drawer in an Arkansas penitentiary during the summer of 1975 will open on Saturday in the Nina Freudenheim Gallery, 140 North St., Buffalo. He reprinted the photos, enlarging them to 13x19, and in the printing, "sought a balance between what I thought the original image looked like while maintaining some indication of the accumulated effect of time."


The exhibition will run through Oct. 14.

Jackson calls the images "archaeological links to lives in another place, another time."

"The faces they depict are fixed and unmoving—long-dead men and women when they were in their youth and middle age. But the pictures are also about transience and change," he says. "Time has altered the color of the paper and the density of the images, and many show physical evidence of moments when they weren't left in a drawer waiting to be found: the red rust of a onetime paper clip, the bright steel of a staple, the deliberate or accidental mark of a pen."

Most of the photographs of the men were taken inside against a wall or a cloth; most of the photographs of the women were taken outside near a fence while they were seated in a wicker chair.

"It is impossible to look at these images and not think about the persons depicted there," Jackson notes. "But, save for one fact that is a given—and what we find in or infer from these images—we know nothing about those persons, and never will.

"The given," he says, "is that they are all prisoners: for whatever reason, they have been deprived of liberty—the single piece of enduring proof of which is the image at which we presently gaze. The conclusions we draw, the feelings we have, the narratives we suppose—they are all our own. The images are mirrors, resonating with aspects of ourselves we perhaps never before encountered."

But that resonance doesn't occur when the images are only 3x4, Jackson points out.

When the images are small, "they are part of something else—a bureaucratic file, a dossier—even though that something else is now dust," Jackson says, adding that "bureaucratic dossiers trivialize and reduce human life and experience—that is part of their function."

When printed at a larger size, "the images again depict individuals—people who had substance and weight in this world. They look at us, even as we look at them," he says.

Jackson says he began printing the images on 8x10 paper, then on 11x14 paper, but they still were too small.

"The images had to be larger," he says, explaining that when enlarged to 13x19, "many of them are life size. You can't trivialize them when they're life size."