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The American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress
presents the Benjamin Botkin Folklife Lecture Series
AN ACQUISITIONS & PRESENTATION PROJECT

March 25, 2010 Event Flyer

Folklore and Seeing:
Photographs from Cummins Prison, 1915-2010

Presented by Bruce Jackson

2010 Botkin Lecture Flyer for Bruce Jackson


While he was a graduate student in comparative literature at Indiana University (1960-63) Bruce Jackson recorded interviews and music at the Indiana State Prison (Michigan City) and Missouri Penitentiary (Jefferson City). His ethnographic prison research really took form, however, when he received a three year (later extended to four) appointment to Harvard’s Society of Fellows in 1963. After some local work at the Massachusetts Correctional Institution (Walpole), Jackson started visiting Texas prisons in 1964. He continued those visits on a regular basis until 1967. As in the prisons he'd visited earlier, he recorded conversations about crime and prison life, but he also began his extensive study of black convict worksongs, a slavery-time tradition with clear African roots. That research produced a number of audio recordings, a film, several books about criminal and prison life, and two books about Afro-American folklore. In 1979, Jackson returned to Texas prisons with Diane Christian to do the fieldwork for what became a classic film and book study of men awaiting execution, Death Row.

In August 1971, when Jackson was preparing to leave his home in Buffalo for a year in San Francisco, he learned that Terrill Don Hutto, who had been a school teacher and later warden at Ramsey Prison Farm in Texas when Jackson did his fieldwork there, had been appointed commissioner of the Arkansas prison system. That system had not long before been deemed unconstitutional by a federal judge. It was the first American prison ever to be put into federal receivership.

Jackson visited Cummins prison on his way to California, mostly out of curiosity to see what that infamous prison looked like. In Texas, Jackson had been allowed to go anywhere he liked with camera and recorder, unaccompanied by guards or any other officials; Hutto gave him the same freedom at Cummins. A year later, on his way back to Buffalo, he visited Cummins again, thinking to write an article for the New York Times about how the prison had been changed by Hutto and the crew of Texans he'd imported-or how Hutto and the crew of Texans had been changed by Cummins.

When he set to work on the article, he found he was more interested in the images he'd brought back from Cummins than he was in what he was writing about the place. So over the next three years he returned to Cummins six more times, taking about four thousand photographs. More than one hundred of those photographs, along with commentary on the prison by Jackson and an autobiographical essay by a long-term prisoner about life in Cummins before the federal takeover, was published by Cornell University Press in 1977: Killing Time: Life in the Arkansas Penitentiary.

There were two groups of images Jackson acquired during his last visits that, for a variety of technical reasons, he could do nothing with at the time: images he made with a Widelux, a panoramic camera with a wide angle (26mm) rotating lens that produces a frame twice as wide as an ordinary 35mm camera with the approximate field of view of a 9mm fisheye lens, but with none of the funhouse-mirror distortion that is characteristic of such lenses. The other was a group of prisoner identification photographs taken between 1915 and 1937, which he found in a drawer.

Recent versions of Photoshop, and the advent of digital printing, permitted him to restore the portraits and edit and print the panoramic images properly. The panoramics are not only interesting images in their own right, but they often show so much material that would ordinarily be out of the frame they provide context for the visual ethnographic report comprised by the ordinary photographs. The identification photos are the polar extreme of documentary photographs made by an outsider: they have a story of their own to tell. A complete set of the portraits was recently deposited in the Library.

Bruce Jackson is SUNY Distinguished Professor and James Agee Professor of American Culture at University at Buffalo. He is a filmmaker, photographer, and author or editor of 25 books, the most recent of which are The Story is True: The Art and Meaning of Telling Stories (Temple, 2007) and Pictures from a Drawer: Prison and the Art of Portraiture (Temple, 2009). He was a Junior Fellow in the Harvard Society of Fellows (1963-1967), Guggenheim Fellow (1971-1972), and Grammy Nominee (1974). His first book was a festschrift for Ben Botkin, Folklore and Society (Folklore Associates, 1966). His two best known folklore books are Wake Up Dead Man: Afro-American Worksongs from Texas Prisons (Harvard, 1972) and “Get Your Ass in the Water and Swim Like Me”: Narrative Poetry from Black Oral Tradition (Harvard, 1974). He served as president of the American Folklore Society, editor of Journal of American Folklore, and a member of the board of trustees of the American Folklife Center. In recognition of his ethnographic and anti-death-penalty work, the French government appointed him chevalier in L’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres (2002). Jackson is currently working on a book of his Texas death row photographs and a new photographic project that has the working title Post-Industrial Buffalo.

AFC logo The American Folklife Center was created by Congress in 1976 and placed at the Library of Congress to "preserve and present American Folklife" through programs of research, documentation, archival preservation, reference service, live performance, exhibition, public programs, and training. The Center includes the American Folklife Center Archive of folk culture, which was established in 1928 and is now one of the largest collections of ethnographic material from the United States and around the world. Please visit our web site.

 

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