Pictures From a Drawer: Prison and the Art of Portraiture by Bruce Jackson
They say a picture is worth a thousand words, and paging through this simple yet riveting book breathes a powerful new breath of truth into the tired old adage. The book is comprised of old prisoner identification photographs of inmates housed in Arkansas’ Cummins prison during the first half of the 20th Century. Writer, photographer, and filmmaker Bruce Jackson discovered the faded photos in a drawer in 1975, and these many years later using today’s advanced photo restoration technology he has restored the images and presents them here in large, portrait sized prints. The tiny mug shots he found were originally taken as prisoners entered or exited the prison system, but Jackson says, “I always wanted to make them big. The whole purpose of photographs like this is to make people small, to make people part of a bureaucratic dossier. They’re nameless.”
But Jackson has done powerfully right by the subjects here–they still remain nameless, but he has restored to them some of their humanity and their dignity. And to look upon their inscrutable faces and to return the stares of these long vanished human beings is to be sucked into a dark and teeming well of human emotion, surrounded by every permutation of grief, anger, fear, defeat, and defiance imaginable. These photographs are haunting and absolutely mesmerizing, capturing not just visible light on the film’s emulsion, but also burning the lives and stories of these lost individuals onto the images.