cover image Pictures from a Drawer: Prison and the Art of Portraiture

Pictures from a Drawer: Prison and the Art of Portraiture

Bruce Jackson, . . Temple Univ., $34.95 (204pp) ISBN 978-1-59213-949-1

In a stimulating introductory essay accompanying this collection of extraordinary photographic portraits, Jackson (The Story Is True ) recalls visiting in 1975 Arkansas's Cummins state prison farm, where an inmate invited him to fill his pockets with about 200 discarded prisoner identification photographs, likely dating from 1915 to 1940. Drawn at random from a forgotten drawer, these worn and badly yellowed artifacts were (absent the dossiers they served and enhanced) anonymous traces of both a system of control and the lives—male and female, African-American and white—lived inside it. Their publication in large portrait format awaited 21st-century digital technology to make their restoration and reclamation possible. Shrewdly, Jackson balances their remarkable refurbishment with a strong sense of provenance (retaining staple holes and creases, for example), while eschewing any attempt to connect each haunting image with a particular crime or narrative. Given unprecedented and (from the perspective of their original purpose) utterly unintended scope, the human dimensions of these images grant each an irreversible dignity for the first time, while simultaneously taking on the essential characteristic Jackson names: they become “mirrors” of ourselves. (Mar.)