Mark Strandquist’s photography project, Some Other Places We’ve Missed, shown this June at the Bridge in Charlottesville, Virginia, plays on the conceit of loss as concrete topos or commonplace—loss as a place that can be shown. Some Other Places We’ve Missed is a series of photographs, snap-shot size, taken in response to prisoners’ requests to see places that, incarcerated, they can no longer visit or inhabit. But the concept yoking these images resonates on multiple levels. Loss is the place that grounds 21st century American culture, or for the most part does: how many of us now live in the same house, or the same neighborhood or town, in which our parents lived at the time of our birth? As Bachelard makes clear, the first house of childhood holds the shape of memory. And we have nearly all been dispossessed of the body of that memory
But for the incarcerated, the shape of early memory, the loss of the concrete space that was oneself, is a sharper, harsher, crueler and sometimes absolute loss. Almost grotesque for me to compare the loss of access to the place that is oneself suffered by the incarcerated to the loss of access to one’s first house suffered by the typical non-incarcerated 21st century American. And yet, I think that link is part of what makes Mr Strandquist’s show so very powerful. We all, almost, know how it is. And yet we don’t.
As a young teen I spent roughly two months in solitary confinement. No reason to say more except to note that the absolute weirdness of place that entrapment enforces is powerful. One never again feels the same about habitable man-made space. Habitable man-made space indeed becomes one’s obsession, as Merle Haggard once suggested when he said he felt at home in his room on his tour bus because it reminded him of his prison cell. He was not romanticizing prison, maybe his songs did, but telling a truth of entrapment. One becomes the space where one is held.
Strandquist’s photographs resist that shrinking of soul. Quietly, these postcard sized, homely, images instate the possibility of release for many who will not get out of prison for years, or maybe never. The project—to show another place “we” missed—is protest sublime, tersely inculcating audience in the harms of the victims with that “we”. So quiet, so delicate, the tender rooms and houses and parks and corners of the middle and poorer than middle class that his photographs show, endowed mirrors of mental landscapes entrapped in prison. The small frame, insisted upon by the prison, that dictated the images be no larger than postcards if they were to be sent to the prisoners for whom the images originally were made, provides the formal restraint that keeps the project clear of bathos. That the images were made firstly for the prisoners—that they were made to give the prisoners a visual image of a place they love and cannot physically enter—is the kindness and trauma at the heart of the project.
How intensely this project pressures the conceit of photography to give us what we want: the face of the beloved who is dead, or the face of the beloved when she was beautiful and young. As Barthes would have it the face of one’s mother as a virgin in a pristine winter garden. Photography as Eden is the concourse of Strandquists’s strangely eloquent project.
Viewing the exhibit one is asked to interact. One is asked to pick up a different card beneath each photograph, a card on which the prisoner has written his description of the place he is asking Mr Strandquist to photograph. In this sense the project is collaborative: the prisoner describes the place to be photographed, and Mr. Strandquist goes to that place and sends back the requested image. These handwritten, photocopied (or photographed) verbal text documents, in which the prisoners describe the places they want photographed, push to the edge of poignancy. Almost too painful to imagine the imprisoned writer’s hope to see a place he misses. Did the photograph answer that hope, or did it only whet desire? Not that I mistrust this project. It is moving and graceful and the photographs themselves formally balanced and clean, as clean and sharp as that aching memory of the playground where one once played, unseen by parents because that part of the town was safe enough to escape to, between pine trees, it was just there one was safe.
Art as activism, I guess, is the gambit of this exhibit. And as such it works very well, because its terms are willing to humble the artist, to set the artist at the service of the “criminal” to look not for the distinction, one drawn by Alice Miller, between the criminal and the artist (that distinction was the presence of a caring witness during childhood’s atrocities) but instead to place the artist at the service of his brother, the criminal. I do not touch here on race, but it’s well known that the story of incarceration in America is mostly this story of race (Michelle Alexander’s book The New Jim Crow is immaculate in its presentation of these facts). And yet Strandquists’s quiet, plaintive images resist racializing the trauma of incarceration and I think properly so. They show the gaze of the criminal as inseparable from the gaze of the child, looking at and looking for the corner of the world where he is safe, where he is home. And not the perverted post-incarceration home to which Haggard referred but home as Bachelard would have it, the place of sky and earth at ease.
Claire Raymond, July 2013
for more information: http://www.nomovement.com/Windows-From-Prison-Youth-to-Youth