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Bruce Jackson in The Buffalo News

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

A fractured look at the sprawling life and career of Bruce Jackson by Colin Dabkowski

If you ask longtime University at Buffalo professor, photographer and writer Bruce Jackson a question about his life or career, there's a good chance he'll respond with a quote from a beloved film or a famous friend.

“You ask me a question about how I got into this, I tell you a story,” Jackson said in a conversation in the Burchfield Penney Art Center, where his photography exhibition, “Being There,” hangs through June 16. “My friend John Barth used to say, 'The story of your life is not your life; it's your story.' ”

The particular patchwork story of Jackson's life now on view in the center's towering east gallery – captured in photographs of life on death row and on prison farms, landscapes of the Alaskan and Mexican wilderness and the great thinkers whose lives intersected with Jackson's – is a jumble of information that seems destined to confound newcomers to Jackson's life and work. It is a collection of visual quotes from different periods in Jackson's life, held together by mostly invisible threads.

For those already familiar with Jackson's indispensable work in human rights, his innumerable books and articles on issues of local and national import and his far-reaching magnanimity and intelligence, this show is like flipping through a family photo album. For everyone else (which is to say: almost everyone), it is likely to seem scattershot.

The show, organized by Burchfield Penney curator Scott Propeack in collaboration with Jackson, confronts us with the individual beauty of Jackson's photographs, certainly. It lets us feel the vague weight and panoramic breadth of his career. But, by design, it doesn't tell us an awful lot about his individual accomplishments.

The show contains three bodies of work that bleed into one another: Jackson's prison photography, which he began in the '60s as a note-taking device and later developed into a major pillar of his multifarious career; his landscape photographs and studies of Buffalo's abandoned properties and light-drenched grain elevators; and a series of 166 candid or posed portraits of famous and less-than-famous figures.

The show also contains cases filled with objects and honors Jackson has collected, ranging from his nomination for a Grammy Award and his medals from French dignitaries to shanks from prison wardens around the country that give concrete form to the violence implied in many of his pictures.

As beautiful as Jackson's portraiture and landscape photographs can be, they pale in comparison to his phenomenal prison work – perhaps the grand achievement of his career. His panoramic images of the Cummins prison farm in Arkansas from the 1970s, shot on a Widelux F6B camera with a swiveling lens that allows for panoramic images with no distortion, evoke the fresh pain of slavery in a manner few other contemporary photographs have done.

The menace of the guards, whether on horseback or enjoying cool beverages as prisoners in stark white uniforms toil in the sweltering fields, practically bleeds through the frame. The photographs depict the prisoners as tiny figures hunched over cotton plants in the distance or, closer up, directing thousand-yard stares through the lens of Jackson's camera to a place far outside the prison walls.

Equally arresting is Jackson's body of work documenting prisoners' lives on Texas' death row in the late 1970s, a place where time becomes more of an abstraction than a reality.

“Death row is a prison unlike any other in that it's the only prison we have, other than Guantanamo, where time does not count,” Jackson said. “You're not sentenced to time on death row, you're sentenced to be killed. So the time on death row is limbo.”

And that sense of “timeless time,” a phrase Jackson used for the title of one of his excellent recent books – co-authored with his wife, colleague and longtime collaborator Diane Christian – comes across in many of the era's photographs. It's visible in the cold but slightly wistful stare of Excell White, who was killed by the state in 1999 after decades of numb suffering, through the bars of his cell. You can sense it a color portrait of Kerry Max Cook, who was exonerated in 1997 on DNA evidence that proved he didn't commit the rape and murder for which he was convicted, and in an image of a pair of hands reaching through cell bars to play a game of dominoes.

Look at these pictures long enough, and you can almost hear the meaningless ticking of the meaningless clock.

They make the rest of the work seem like frosting.

Panoplies of portraits, arranged without frames in big blocks, communicate a sense of Jackson's ever-expanding social circle of cultural and political figures but not much else. There are sensitive portrayals of figures like philosopher Michel Foucault and comical shots of Jackson's friend and UB colleague Raymond Federman, among dozens and dozens of others.

Elsewhere, we see enormous enlargements of party scenes from Jackson's house, Buffalo's grain elevators and a photograph of a house made out of rocks shot on a 2011 trip to Salt Flat, Texas. None of this, nicely shot as it is, does much more than attempt to convince us that this man has done a great deal of living, thinking, writing and photographing.

Maybe that's as much as any attempt to capture a career as varied and productive as Jackson's is able to achieve. Even Jackson seemed to suggest as much, as he talked about the collection of business cards, awards and prison shanks on view in glass cases.

“You can't make sense of it. It's just a lot of stuff,” he said of the contents of the cases. “But that's really what life is. You can't make sense of it; it is a lot of stuff. I talk to you, and I try to make it coherent. It's not.”

Jackson, like his photographic muse Walker Evans and the author after whom his professorship at UB is named, James Agee, understands this in his bones. He knows that life is messy and confusing and doesn't always make the sort of sense you'd like it to make.

But not every museum exhibition works best as a scrapbook, as a fragmented poem like the Burchfield's recent show “McCallum Tarry: Intersections,” or as a map with no key. “Being There” ends up as a tale, told by a genius, full of disparate memories, signifying too much to comprehend.