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For several years, Bay Area artist and photographer Nigel Poor has been teaching photography classes for inmates at San Quentin State Prison. One day in late 2012, she stopped by the front office to speak with the prison’s public information officer about something and noticed a box of old aerial photos of the correctional complex from the 1970s sitting on his desk.
Poor was immediately enthralled.
“The lieutenant said, ‘If you like those, you’ll love these,’” Poor said. “And then he hauled out a banker’s box full of 4-by-5 negatives taken from the 1930s all the way to the ’80s.
“This was one of the most exciting moments of my life,” she said in a recent phone interview. “I’ve always been interested in archives, but this was such a find, these images that had never been seen.”
She asked if she could take some home and scan them in for a closer look. “These were images of the complexities of prison life, things that were disturbing and horrible, but also things that were funny and lovely,” she said.
“I knew they had to be preserved and would be enlightening for people to see. But I thought, what could I do beyond just preserving them?”
What she came up with was, “The San Quentin Project: Nigel Poor and the Men of San Quentin State Prison,” a new exhibition at the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive, opening Aug. 21 and running through Nov. 17 with a series of accompanying public programs.
The exhibition, which premiered at the Milwaukee Art Museum earlier this year, is not merely a display of 80 historic glimpses of daily life in the minimum/maximum-security facility. Rather, it’s a collaboration between Poor and her inmate photo students, incorporating their handwritten “mapping exercises” — written analyses and interpretations of the images.
“The way it worked, it wasn’t really a class — we had an informal group and we’d start off discussing photographic principles, thinking about perspective and other points,” said Poor, a professor of photography at Cal State Sacramento, and a member of the Bay Area photo collective Library Candy. “Then we’d take those bits of analytical information to create something more narrative, more creative,” she said.
In one archive shot dubbed “The Dance of Violence,” two men are seen fighting in the exercise yard, but it was actually a reenactment of an incident. A current inmate and photo student named Tommy made markings and comments on the image.
“Something drastic has occurred in this picture,” he wrote in the margins. “This photo appears to be taken from the vantage point of a gun tower. There’s an unseen eeriness implied by this reenactment. Were knives involved? Was anyone hurt? Was anyone shot?”
“That’s part of the mystery of the archive,” Poor said. “There was no documentation on the photos, no official explanation as to why they were reenacting an incident, why this photo was taken. Maybe for training? We don’t know, so the inmates are offering interpretations.”
Another segment of the exhibition includes audio stations where visitors can listen to “Ear Hustle,” a highly acclaimed podcast that documents prison life in extended interviews with current inmates, co-produced by Poor and Earlonne Woods, a former prisoner at San Quentin whose sentence was commuted by former Gov. Jerry Brown last year.
The exhibition also presents the results of a class assignment — inmate annotations on about 30 photos by professional photographers.
BAMPFA curator Julia White, who co-organized the exhibition’s Berkeley presentation with associate curator Stephanie Cannizzo, says the show “illuminates the complicated history and current conditions of San Quentin State Prison, a place that is widely known throughout our region without being deeply understood by those outside its walls.
“It’s especially meaningful to us to share the perspective of the prison’s own inhabitants — many of whom come from Bay Area communities — whose voices have been powerfully foregrounded through this remarkable collaboration with Nigel,” White said.
The “San Quentin Project” is truly an extension of Poor’s previous work that focuses on traces people leave of their existence in this world, examined in close-up photos of objects people have discarded or a portrait study of individuals’ hands.
“The prison project almost feels like the culmination of all the ideas I’ve been interested in for a long time,” Poor said. “It’s the physical evidence of what’s been going on at San Quentin over the years. People in prison are forgotten in many ways and told they don’t matter. This is a small way of validating their experience and their stories.”
“The San Quentin Project: Nigel Poor and the Men of San Quentin State Prison,” runs from Aug. 21 t0 Nov.
17 at the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive, 2155 Center St., Berkeley; www.bampfa.org.