ART IN REVIEW; Deborah Luster and C.D. Wright
by Grace Glueck, The New York Times
Armed with nothing but a camera, Deborah Luster gained access in 1998 to the East Carroll Parish Prison Farm in Transylvania and spent the next three and a half years taking pictures of inmates there and in two other Louisiana state prisons.
Without knowing quite why, Ms. Luster searched for some contact with the forces of violence and greed that were responsible for her mother’s death by a hired gunman a decade earlier. She took hundreds of individual portraits of inmates at the three prisons, patiently shooting killers, rapists, drug dealers and petty offenders in a neutral way that honors their identities. The inmates got a dozen wallet-size prints of their portraits.
A selection of her results, arresting amber-toned prints that evoke 19th-century tintypes, appeared in a book of the same title as this show, issued last year by Twin Palms Publishers of Santa Fe, N.M. They are presented here in a uniform series of 5-by-4-inch black aluminum plates, mounted in frames and also loosely arranged in the drawers of a black metal chest where they can be freely handled by visitors.
Dressed in prison or work garb, in Mardi Gras costumes and masks, some prominently tattooed, a few holding objects that they have made or other prized possessions, the subjects form a touching and occasionally amusing saga of life behind walls (88 percent of the men incarcerated at Angola, the state’s maximum security facility, will die there, Ms. Luster reports).
One inmate at Angola is seen in a posture of prayer; several at the Louisiana Correctional Institute for Women appear in the garb of culinary trainees; a few prisoners at Angola pose in boxing stance. A convict at Transylvania holds a placard that reads ”Missing You”; another simply reveals a smuttily tattooed arm whose hand holds an angelic photograph of a young son.
Adding to the power of the show, the pictures are accompanied by the rich poetry of C. D. Wright (available on earphones), wrought in part of salty inmate dialogue.