Bruce Jackson (b. 1936), Cummins Prison, Arkansas, 1972; black and white photograph, 13 x 19 inches; Courtesy of the Artist

Prison: Bruce Jackson by Tony Bannon

Saturday, May 18, 2013

With a provocative tweak, Jackson declares that prisons, like universities, are among our nation’s major social institutions. That truth has sustained his commitment to both. Prison is Jackson’s primary place. Bertrand Russell’s public persona was the War Crimes Tribunal during the Vietnam War; Boston scholars Noam Chomsky and George Wald also were declarative about Vietnam.

Fifty years ago, Jackson first researched the East Texas prisons in search of work songs that carried the tunes of history and hope. His research and recordings received a GRAMMY nomination, and led to films, and books, and photographs. Prison, it is clear, is the place where people don’t want to be. His images provide a launch for prison reform. But his photographs also carry the humanity of beautiful people whose carriage through their place sustains an aesthetic. Behind any ideas of art, though, is the extreme case of prison: Death row. It is an awful talisman of the American justice system, and Jackson’s portraits there provide a tally of passage made the more gripping with the idea that each image holds fast the light reflected off those faces the day of their portrait, a day in which they were still alive. Several men still are alive. Many are not

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Anthony Bannon
Executive Director
Burchfield Penney Art Center