Curator Close-Up: Gregory Harris
Watch as Harris prepares an exhibition of photographs tackling the psychology of solitary confinement.
This fall, Assistant Curator of Photography Gregory Harris acquired two photographs from Amy Elkins: Black is the Day, Black is the Night. This body of work (on view at the High through April 29, 2018) explores the psychological effects of solitary confinement through abstracted photographs drawn from Elkins’s correspondence with incarcerated men around the United States.
The photographs we acquired relate to a man incarcerated in Georgia, and they align with the High’s history of collecting works with themes of social justice.
In the video below, Harris discusses acquiring the two photographs for the High’s collection and the path the works took on their way to the gallery walls. After the video, scroll for more of the story behind Amy Elkins: Black is the Day, Black is the Night.
Black is the Day, Black is the Night
Did you know that the United States of America imprisons more people than any country in the world? Although the U.S. represents just 5% of the world’s population, we lock up 25% of the world’s prisoners.
The topics of American mass incarceration and solitary confinement are at the center of Amy Elkins: Black is the Day, Black is the Night. For years, Elkins corresponded with men serving life and death row sentences — writing letters, paying visits, and getting to know the human beings behind the statistics. The photographs and ephemera on view are part of a larger project that culminated in the book Black is the Day, Black is the Night, that the artist self-published in 2016. Read on for excerpts from the book’s foreword, written by Gregory Harris:
“The statistics are staggering: at any given time there are 2.2 million people incarcerated in the United States, 100,000 of them in solitary confinement. Describing the American criminal justice system as one of mass incarceration is far from hyperbole. But, when those numbers are so big and so vague, how do you even begin to make sense of what it means to be in prison? How do you articulate what spending 22–1⁄2 hours a day in a windowless 6’x9’ foot cell, for any length of time, let alone long term, does to the mind and one’s sense of self? These daunting questions are at the root of Black is the Day, Black is the Night, photographer Amy Elkins’ elegy to seven men serving sentences of life or death.”
Recently Acquired Photographs
“As a portrait photographer, Elkins is most interested in the visual manifestations of personality and in revealing a sense of emotional depth. Since, in this case, she could not photograph her subjects firsthand, she developed an innovative strategy to present their likenesses.
The only photographs Elkins could find of these men were posted to their online profiles and were often decades out of date. She processed these images using an algorithm that would distort them in proportion to the years they had been incarcerated. These portraits, posterized beyond recognition, become a metaphor for the inevitable drift of personality and the profound alterations to self-identity that occur in extreme isolation.”
“Elkins fabricated landscapes based on the men’s descriptions of memories of places dear to them or places of fascination they cannot visit….The density with which Elkins layered the images depended on the length of the sentence of the individual for whom she made it.…The shifting scenes, morphed by time, thus lyrically illustrate the memories of a lost life….
After seeing a set of landscapes Elkins created in this way, one of the men wrote to say, ‘I must admit to you that when I first received your letter two days ago I could not stop myself from feeling so overwhelmed by this longing of being in a place as lovely as that. I really do wish to convey my appreciation for you bringing these places to me right in my cell, where it makes my mind run wild.’”
Excerpts by Gregory Harris from Amy Elkins, Black is the Day, Black is the Night (Ventura, CA: self-published, 2016).
By Eva Berlin, Digital Content Specialist, High Museum of Art