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Matinee: 'Shooting Inmates, The Photography of Deborah Luster' Share This on LinkedIn   Share This on Google   Tweet This   Forward This

2 September 2017

Saturday matinees long ago let us escape from the ordinary world to the island of the Swiss Family Robinson or the mutinous decks of the Bounty. Why not, we thought, escape the usual fare here with Saturday matinees of our favorite photography films?

So we're pleased to present the 203rd in our series of Saturday matinees today: Shooting Inmates, The Photography of Deborah Luster.

In just under four minutes, Arkansas photographer Deborah Luster tells NPR the story of her career, which began in 1988 after the murder of her mother. It was a calling. In her family, she writes, "the camera was manned by women."

In the 1950s and '60s, my grandmother, Mary Elizabeth Pyeatt Gunter, consistently and inadvertently produced a series of photographs, "the diagonal family." Each frame in this series from our family ark -- full of cats, dogs, horses and blood kin -- appeared to list approximately ten degrees, as if taking on water. Later, my mother, Jean Alyrn Gunter Tovrea, documented our annual Christmas trees, the evolution of our fashion sensibilities and seemingly, our family's every mood and move. These, along with photographs taken long before my birth, were kept secure in several albums or haphazardly in an orange wooden box.

When her mother was murdered by a contract killer, Luster grounded herself by picking up a camera. Or, better put, she grabbed hold of one like a shipwreck survivor.

She started making photographs of anything to escape the destruction of her mother's violent death. Ten years later she had a grant from the Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities. "I was one of those photographers driving around on Delta roads looking for inspiration," she writes.

They arranged themselves in what she calls very 19th century poses, making themselves vulnerable. Revealing themselves.

But she kept coming across these small prisons, she explains in the film. So she stopped, knocked on the gate and asked the warden if she could make portraits there.

The project hit home.

When she entered the prison she found that she left her sorrow behind. She took formal portraits of the prisoners. They would often bring something with them to the session. A shoe, a picture, a phrase on a piece of paper, something important to them.

They arranged themselves in what she calls very 19th century poses, making themselves vulnerable. Revealing themselves.

She made the first prints on paper but then decided to print them on metal coated with a liquid emulsion. She wanted them to be handled. To be touched. To be real.

So she made them smaller, wallet-sized, she explains in an SFMOMA interview.

Then she gave them away. Some 25,000 metal prints. To the prisoners. She asked them what they were going to do with them and was often touched by the response. One person said he would send it to his sister, who he hadn't seen for 30 years.

They used them to make connections, to make contact with people they cared about.

Reflecting on the project, she writes:

Artists, I believe, are often drawn by spirits into strange places. I found myself walking through prison gates. I felt the leaden hours of the forsaken and forgotten. I felt the certain slowing of time and thickening of space -- neither here nor there. In this place I found it easy to believe that the earth came from a great swirl of gases and that someday it would end. I have come to understand that, while it was the fear and anger generated by my mother's murder that in great measure ignited this work, it is the loss and hope I feel -- that we each feel, one and all -- that has fueled it.

She says in the video that she thinks this is something her mother might have done. And that thought brought her mother back to her. As if, once again, they too had made contact.

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