Imagery & Interpretation II

By Sura Wood

"The San Quentin Project" looks at the unique collaboration between contemporary artist and photographer Nigel Poor and the inmates of California's oldest prison.

Photography as a vehicle for discussion and self-validation is at the core of “The San Quentin Project: Nigel Poor and the Men of San Quentin State Prison,” an intriguing new exhibition at BAMPFA. The show’s central works are the product of an unusual collaboration between Poor, a visual artist and photographer, and the prison’s inmates. For classes and workshops she conducted at the medium-security facility she gathered photographs by established artists such as Robert Misrach, Hiroshi Sugimoto and William Eggleston as well as documentary images from the prison’s historical archive shot by correctional officers. Poor made prints and invited her students to annotate them with hand-written commentary and drawings. “We couldn’t use cameras so I came up with an assignment that would give them the experience of creating something personal, where they could take someone else’s work and make it their own,” explains Poor. “We can all look at photographs and project our experience into them.” Poor recalls one of her students, Marvin Arnold, took that idea a step further, insisting that a gas station in an Eggleston photograph was near where he grew up. “A photo can feel familiar even if it’s a place you’ve never been,” she observes. “It was a good way for them to talk about their biographies."

            The inmates mapped and reacted to the pictures while conveying an insider’s view of daily life behind bars at San Quentin, an institution with deadening routines, bursts of brutal violence and a mythology all its own. They escort us into the world of the images, speculating on what transpired and offering scenarios remembered or imagined. Tommy Shakur Ross diagrammed a picture of a small exercise yard like a crime scene and titled it: “The Dance of Violence.”  “Was anyone shot? Was anyone hurt?,” he writes. “I feel like many prisoners died here.” In another image, a man who had been stabbed is supported on the left by an arm belonging to an off-camera figure, perhaps a prison official, and by a bare arm reaching into the frame to stabilize him from the right. Ruben Ramirez, who never finished high school, compares the wounded prisoner to a “fallen cathedral buttressed by two different forces.”

            “I’m interested in how people find meaning,” says Poor. “That’s extra challenging in prison. You’re cloistered away from society and told over and over you don’t matter. I wanted the men to feel that their history and stories are important.”

            Poor also elicits stories through in-depth interviews with inmates on Ear Hustle, the podcast she co-created with former prisoner, Earlonne Woods. Visitors will be able to listen to select episodes in audio stations adjacent to the show.


August 21 → November 17

BAMPFA, 2155 Center St, Berkeley