Prison Photography

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This weekend, the BBC ran a piece about a pinhole photography workshop in a women’s prison in Argentina. I greatly admire pinhole photography in prisons.

The images are atmospheric – retro, a little blurred and with almost fish-eye perspective in some. They look like stills from some 90s skate video or something (I don’t know why that matters). They are awash in color, not unlike every hipster’s favorite, the aura portrait (not sure why that matters either).

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Maybe it was precisely because these images didn’t look like a prison that I was attracted to them. If they weren’t the feature of an article about prison and rehabilitation, they’d have scuttled right by during my day of contestant image flow. naturally, I wanted to know more about their production.

[ SEE MORE OF THE IMAGES HERE ]

They were made during a workshop offered YoNoFui, a organization that provides…

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So for the past week I’ve been sitting by the pool in my parents’ gated island condo community reading deeply and widely in Black Power and revolutionary theory, coming to grips with the intricacies of Pan Africanism and ruminating on the essence of diasporic identity.  In my strange world, irony, it seems, is immortal.  I guess I could interrogate the contradictions and all–privileged environs, white boy doing Black history, reading the revolution bathed in sunscreen–but the hell with it.  I’m too tired.  And the place, on Hilton Head Island, is one of my favorite places to hide, something I like to do quite a lot.

To a certain degree, I write for effect.  The community where my parents’ condo stands is actually pretty diverse.  Black, Latino, and Asian families are well-represented.  It is a kind of “beloved community” for the upper middle class set; the kind that capitalism churns up sometimes.  Entry is guaranteed if you’re fortunate enough to have the price of admission.

My parents started bringing us to Hilton Head back in the early 1970s.  We shared a condominium with two other families and each had a month during the summer to visit.  No surprise the island was different back then.  Very different.  Most of the development was on the southern end of the island–Sea Pines Plantation.  The enormous growth of island-wide construction was just beginning.  I remember the Driessen family general store and gas station near the bridge on the north end of the island.  (Danny Driessen played for the Cincinnati Reds back in the 70s.)  There was a more delineated native island community–or at least that’s the way it seemed.  Visitors to the island were predominantly white.  If you saw a Black face, it was the person doing the landscaping or working in the kitchen at the restaurant.  You never saw a Latino family.

I was a little busy in the 1990s but when I returned to the island in the early 00s, the world had changed.  The first thing I noticed was the number of African Americans in the shops, restaurants, and on the beaches–reflective of the general expansion of the Black middle class post-CRM.  That diversity has only increased.  Is that a good thing?  Of course.  It is certainly preferable to the exclusionary society that existed before that.  But there is another element to that story–to the transformation that time and capitalism have wrought–that is more difficult to track.  It is the way that the history of HHI and the rest of the SC and GA Sea Islands has been commodified, modified, sanitized, and/or erased.

Maybe it is all the reading I’ve been doing, perhaps it has something to do with the tragedy in Charleston and the subsequent debate over the Confederate flag.  But as we enjoyed the gorgeous beaches, wonderful weather, fine restaurants, I began to think about the place Hilton Head had prior to the Civil War as a linchpin in the plantation complex of the Sea Islands.  I thought about the hundreds of slaves that lived, toiled, and died to grow the indigo, rice, and cotton so important to the lowcountry economy.  Honestly, it is hard not to think about those things as so many of the condo and hotel complexes reference the names of antebellum plantations.  Port Royal, Marshland, and Spanish Wells are all represented.  Place names matter.  Naming is a function of power.  If those names reflect affluence and comfort today, or conjure up Gone With the Wind imagery of antebellum opulence, those perceptions mask the historical and social costs of such affluence.  Braddock Point might be Harbortown today but, with streets named for prominent planters and slaveholders, it still has the exploitative feel of the past.  Commerce, I guess, is commerce.  Blindly celebrating success while blithely ignoring the foundation of that success is as American as apple pie.  Then when it all goes bad, we wring our hands and gnash our teeth and wonder how such a thing could happen in the “home of the free?”

The Confederate flag is hate speech pure and simple.  It is arguably the most odious symbol of past and present racism.  But drill down just a little and you find that this same racism is, to paraphrase the writer Charles Chesnutt, the very marrow of our American tradition.  It is exactly who we are as a people and society.  It is as mundane as the streets we drive on and the places we lay our heads while on vacation.  We invent alternate realities that mask or erase that central point but it stands just the same.  We all in some way partake of it; it belongs to all of us.

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As I said, I’ve been reading about Black Power in preparation for the upcoming semester.  That got me thinking about Mitchelville–the effort by Union general Ormsby Mitchel to establish a self-governing Black community among the freed population of Hilton Head Island.  Consider it a footnote to the larger Port Royal experiment.  With Mitchel’s blessing, 1500 freedpeople set about building a town, creating a governance structure, electing representatives, building housing and businesses.  This experiment in Black empowerment was so successful that Harriet Tubman made a special visit to Hilton Head just to witness the phenomenon.  Eventually, however, Mitchelville ran aground on the shoals of post-Reconstruction South Carolina politics.  Now local preservationists are working diligently to commemorate that history.  Heritage not hate.  But what does it mean that to get to the Mitchelville site, you have to roll along byways named for the Southern planter aristocracy?  In ways that barely register, consumption perpetuates racial conflict.  Efforts to preserve our history of struggle and resistance, are too often–and too easily–steamrolled by the sham histories that are more easily marketed to an unsuspecting public just looking for a little rest and relaxation.

People like myself who think and write about the South for a living often extol the “sense of place” among southerners both Black and white.  As someone who has bounced all over the country in search of a place to call my own, I admire that attribute.  To a point.  In our land, racial conflict and unbridled consumption waltz arm in arm, and our sense of “place” ain’t no benign thing!  It is a political formation as contested as any other and shaped by the asymmetries of power that define our nation.  We live the contradictions daily as surely as I plot the revolution while sitting poolside.  We allow these competing histories to exist side-by-side as so many alternative realities and we do so at our own risk.  The chickens, as Malcolm reminded us so many years ago, always, ALWAYS come home to roost.

My dream job…

Old Time Party

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Smithsonian Folkways producer and archivist Jeff Place holds one of the original glass studio recordings he would have listened to in the making of his recent project Lead Belly: The Smithsonian Folkways Collection. (Toni L. Sandys/The Washington Post)

from http://www.washingtonpost.com:

Over the past three decades, Jeff Place has been the central figure researching, organizing and ultimately releasing the recordings represented in one of the world’s most important collections of 20th- century music: The Rinzler archives includes the 12 record labels now collectively known as Smithsonian Folkways Recordings.

On a recent weekday, Place stood in the Rinzler vault — a windowless room stacked with recordings from 19th-century wax cylinders to 8-tracks. He carefully slid a glass disc out of a paper sleeve and held it up to show the black film — the area where sound had been recorded — peeling like a bad sunburn. This Lead Belly radio recording, dating…

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Flavorwire’s list of “25 Essential Punk Rock Movies” is pretty good.  But it never really gets around to establishing its criteria.  Obviously if it’s a documentary like Spheeris’s Vol. 1 and 3, or if its a film in the milieu, those could make the cut.  But what about the movies like “Out of the Blue” or even “Straight to Hell” that don’t have much to do with the music or the scene and yet might capture something of the ambiance of the times or, in the case of Cox’s western, have a few punk musicians in the cast?  (Yeah, I’d probably have left that one off the list.)  Wouldn’t Jarmusch’s “Permanent Vacation” or even “Stranger Than Paradise” count?  How about Nick Zedd’s “They Eat Scum?”  Tsukerman’s “Liquid Sky?”  Lizzie Borden’s classic “Born In Flames” would definitely be on my list.

Regardless, everyone needs goals, and since I own quite a lot of these I’m going to see how many I can screen before classes start in the fall.  And I’m going to give some thought to what might constitute “punk rock cinema.”  Sounds like the makings of another list.

ModeloCheap Mexican beer (especially Modelo Especial)
Guy Maddin movies
Cleveland Indians games
Alice Cooper’s “Love It to Death” record
The Unified Heart
Guitar

Summer’s are made for lists.  Or at least my summers are.  I love this time of year but for whatever reason I am too rarely focused on the “now.”  My brain races; I’m planning, always planning.  In so many ways, our world, these days, is being remade.  It is difficult for me to commit to new ventures even though so many of the old ones are gone.  I’m told that’s just the PTSD and that stuff will come back.  I’m not so sure–I don’t think I really care one way or another.  My priorities are different now.

I’ve spent my adult life fighting a protracted war against nostalgia.  I hate the inevitable sanitizing and romanticizing of the past that comes with age and experience.  And yeah, it has been one helluva fight because, truth be told, I’m a rank sentimentalist.  I have a penchant for interrogating nearly all my pop cultural choices–and that’s a bad habit when you wallow in it as much as I do.  So I write lists.  Lots and lots of lists.  The lists aren’t talismans to protect me from the dreaded nostalgia beast, rather they help me see the context for the obsessions and compulsions that make up my life–especially in the  summer.

I scribbled the list above last week more out of contentment and boredom than because I wanted to remember.  The intensity of my trip to Jerusalem has been anomalous.  For the most part summer has had a languid pacing which is exactly what we all needed after the disaster of last year.  Except for the hours a day I spend next to Beth and the girls, my guitar has been a constant companion.  At night when the insomnia sets in baseball and Guy Maddin are my drugs of choice.  When the moment calls for it, my $4 flea market copy of Alice Cooper’s early classic is just what the Doc ordered.  Detroit rock city is the new normal.

What stuck out to me though, when I re-read the list in my notebook, was the Unified Heart.  In our hyper-technological information age, when the old myths choke up their last breaths, we make new myths.  And then we dance.  When Beth and I were enduring the earliest weeks of our recent crisis, we decided that our response to the pain would be to make something.  We imagined a production company, the Unified Heart.  I was a product of the First Wave of punk rock.  It was natural to make our own music, self-publish our manifestos, shoot our own videos.  So it was easy to fall back into it.  We made short videos of Beth dancing, taught Violet how to make the classic 8-page zine, mastered the editing tools necessary to produce sound collages–and we did it all together.  It isn’t professional.  Shit, it isn’t very good.  But when you’ve confronted an unnecessary evil, it only makes sense to put something new and pure into that befouled world.  Has it been an exercise in nostalgia?  Was I falling back on something from my youth; giving in to that sense that there was a more pristine time when the world was less complicated?  No.  And probably.  Who cares?  The Unified Heart was/is the beginning of our new and very personal mythology–a part of the new narrative, the stories we tell to give our world together meaning.  We tell our stories, we sing, we dance.  We drink a lot of cheap Mexican beer…or at least I do.  I wonder why my Indians don’t win more.  Then I think of other lists to make.

 

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Hank Williams, “A Mansion On the Hill”
Carolina Chocolate Drops, “Georgie Buck”
Bob Dylan, “Blackjack Davey”
John Fahey, “Orinda-Moraga”
Frank Hutchison, “Worried Blues”
Neil Young & Crazy Horse, “Cowgirl In the Sand”
Charlie Patton, “Moon Going Down”
Roscoe Holcomb, “Trouble In Mind”
Kris Kristofferson, “Just the Other Side of Nowhere”
Lefty Frizzell, “Forever (And Always)”
Johnny Cash, “Drink To Me Only With Thine Eyes”

Was it Nick Cave who said the secret to writing a song is counterpoint?  I don’t remember.  I do know that there was something elemental about the way Jerusalem affected me and the way I affected Jerusalem.  The sounds of that place were so distinctive and yet the soundtrack that emerged during late nights of writing crawled out of the primordial ooze of another world.  I’ve never understood the paradox of sound–why some songs make sense at certain times or in certain places and others don’t?  I’m not talking about aesthetics.  That’s easy.  Rather I’m talking about meaning.

When I was in Damascus it was Louis Armstrong who issued the call to prayer.  His Hot Fives were blowin’ to shake the pillars of heaven.  I didn’t question it.  But this time I was really struck by how deeply rooted the songs were.  Like they were coming from inside me.  During the day as I fought my way across Jerusalem’s sacred geography, I knew I was writing a new narrative.  But at night it was the old stories that percolated up, that calmed me, that made me cry.

My trip happened almost exactly a year since the great trauma that reduced our world to ruins.  For so long after that there were no songs; no words to tell the story.  There was silence.  We were falling.  But after the fall, you rise.  We are rising.  It is our time now.  Jerusalem was foreign and oh-so-familiar.  Old stories became new there.  And you can mock the essential “American-ness” of the sounds on my Jerusalem mixtape but I will remind you that the secret to writing a great song is counterpoint.  It is the counterpoint that shakes us from our complacency.  We sit up and notice.  We listen.  We experience this world anew.

I have some new stories I want to tell you.