Museum  August 21, 2019  Chandra Noyes

San Quentin State Prison from the Inside Out

BAMPFA

Nigel Poor and Frankie Smith. Mapping Joel Sternfeld, side B, 2011/12. Inkjet print, with ink notations. Courtesy Nigel Poor, with thanks to the Prison University Project.

A collaboration between the photographer Nigel Poor and current inmates at San Quentin State Prison is giving us a rare change of perspective on how we understand the lives and stories found behind bars. In a new exhibition at the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive (BAMPFA) prisoners have an unusual opportunity to share their point of view, and The San Quentin Project: Nigel Poor and the Men of San Quentin State Prison is giving them that chance.

BAMPFA

Nigel Poor and Monta Kevin Tindall. Fish Caught at Ranch 9-17-75, 2013. Inkjet print, with ink notations. Courtesy Nigel Poor, with thanks to Warden Ron Davis and Lieutenant Sam Robinson.

Poor has been collaborating with residents at San Quentin since 2011, where she teaches classes on visual literacy and photography. For this exhibition, previously unseen images from the prison’s archives are used as the basis for “mapping exercises.” In this process, the artists annotate the photographs, breaking down the images into smaller parts, identifying the visual elements as well as the stories and memories that they bring up.

What results in an unusual kind of portrait, different from the mugshot-like images of men and women in orange jumpsuits we typically see. An image of the subject themselves is often absent from Poor’s portraits. Instead, we learn about them through their own words, following their train of thought, and constructing our image of them through their stories and the connections they’ve made to a photograph.

This offers an alternative to way prisoner’s stories are usually told: through the mainstream media. Whether it’s television, movies, or the news, representation of incarcerated life rarely includes the unmediated voices of the imprisoned themselves.

Nigel Poor and Tommy Shakur Ross. Re-Creation 1-6-75, 2013
BAMPFA

Nigel Poor and Tommy Shakur Ross. Re-Creation 1-6-75, 2013. Inkjet print, with ink notations. Courtesy Nigel Poor, with thanks to Warden Ron Davis and Lieutenant Sam Robinson.

Unknown (American, 20th century). Soul Day 8-9-76, from the San Quentin State Prison Archive, 1976, printed 2018
BAMPFA

Unknown (American, 20th century). Soul Day 8-9-76, from the San Quentin State Prison Archive, 1976, printed 2018. Inkjet print. Courtesy Nigel Poor and the San Quentin State Prison Museum, with thanks to Warden Ron Davis and Lieutenant Sam Robinson.

Harold Meeks and Nigel Poor. Gym Profile 7-15-75, 2013
BAMPFA

Harold Meeks and Nigel Poor. Gym Profile 7-15-75, 2013. Inkjet print, with ink notations. Courtesy Nigel Poor, with thanks to Warden Ron Davis and Lieutenant Sam Robinson.

George “Mesro” Coles-El and Nigel Poor. Indian Pow Wow, 2013.
BAMPFA

George “Mesro” Coles-El and Nigel Poor. Indian Pow Wow, 2013. Inkjet print, with ink notations. Courtesy Nigel Poor, with thanks to Warden Ron Davis and Lieutenant Sam Robinson.

Nigel Poor and Frankie Smith. Mapping Joel Sternfeld, side A, 2011/12.
BAMPFA

Nigel Poor and Frankie Smith. Mapping Joel Sternfeld, side A, 2011/12. Inkjet print, with ink notations. Courtesy Nigel Poor, with thanks to the Prison University Project.

Unknown (American, 20th century). Mother’s Day 5-9-76, from the San Quentin State Prison Archive, 1976, printed 2018.
BAMPFA

Unknown (American, 20th century). Mother’s Day 5-9-76, from the San Quentin State Prison Archive, 1976, printed 2018. Inkjet print. Courtesy Nigel Poor and the San Quentin State Prison Museum, with thanks to Warden Ron Davis and Lieutenant Sam Robinson.

Poor has been so moved by the stories she has heard through this project that she launched the Ear Hustle podcast with co-creator Earlonne Woods in 2017. Ear Hustle explores “the daily realities of life inside prison shared by those living it, and stories from the outside, post-incarceration.” The podcast has won multiple awards and was a Peabody Award nominee in 2017 and 2018. With listeners around the world, Ear Hustle has been downloaded more than 20 million times. The exhibition at BAMPFA features listening stations, giving visitors greater context to the visual works.

BAMPFA

Unknown (American, 20th century). WH Woodside CO Fight 4-8-61, from the San Quentin State Prison Archive, 1961, printed 2018. Inkjet print. Courtesy Nigel Poor and the San Quentin State Prison Museum, with thanks to Warden Ron Davis and Lieutenant Sam Robinson.

Throughout her work, Poor has explored and expanded what makes up portraiture. In various projects, she has used fingerprints, hair, trash, and other unusual remnants to compile records of lives lived. Using these little clues, in her work Poor finds new ways to document our experiences, as well as investigating the ways in which we document our own existences. Through The San Quentin Project, Poor is challenging the tradition of who gets to participate in portraiture, a genre that was once reserved almost exclusively for the very elite.

The San Quentin Project is in no way simple: it sheds light on the complicated history of the prison and its inmates, all while pushing the boundaries of what we call portraiture. This complexity, its insights and unanswered questions, offer a nuanced treatment that these stories don’t often get, and it’s a refreshing one. 

The San Quentin Project: Nigel Poor and the Men of San Quentin State Prison is on view at the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive through November 17, 2019.

About the Author

Chandra Noyes

Chandra Noyes is Managing Editor for Art & Object.

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