This Week In Photography Books: Sugimoto/Misrach

by Jonathan Blaustein

I’ve been watching a lot of John Wayne movies lately. I was always a Clint Eastwood guy, so I’d never really understood the Duke, until recently. It’s stupefying to discover the way one man stood as a symbol for an entire nation.

John Wayne captures the rough, charismatic, violent and patriarchal vibe that permeated the US in the post-WWII years. If his middle name were actually Manifest Destiny, would anyone really be surprised?

He led with his big, hamhock fists, and we all needed to trust that he knew what he was doing. He was John Wayne, after all, a facade built upon poor Marion Morrison, just as our fair country was crafted upon the bones of a conquered race.

I even read a quote in which Mr. Wayne said he had no problem with the fact that America stole all this land, because the Native Americans weren’t using it properly. For real. I read that. (Though in our suspicious Internet age, I guess that doesn’t mean he said it.)

I was discussing my newfound fascination with a friend of mine just after Christmas. Iván was my professor in graduate school, and he studied film at NYU. He agreed that John Wayne represented America during it’s reign as the big-swinging-dick-World-Power, but suggested he had been supplanted by another fictional hero for the post-Vietnam era: Forrest Gump.

We had a good giggle at first, because it’s hard to even believe how much everyone cared about Forrest back in the nineties. (Run, Forrest, Run.) But afterwards, he said he was dead serious. Forrest was a bumbling, compromised, win-by-the-skin-of-your-teeth, trust-in-the-luck-of-the-Universe kind of guy. Nobody thought he was a real superhero, but he managed to turn out OK.

These days, Forrest Gump seems quaint to the point of irrelevance. We like our heroes ironic and snarky, like Robert Downey Jr, beefy and dim, like Channing Tatum, or not-even-American, like Chris Hemsworth and Michael Fassbender. And as for Forrest, he’s been relegated to the cultural dustbin.

He did leave us with a few words to live by though, didn’t he? “Life is like a box of chocolates: you never know what you’re going to get.”

How can you argue with Forrest on that one? You can’t. Especially when, like me, you’ve just opened up a plastic sleeve to find “Assignment No. 2: Sugimoto/Misrach: San Quentin Prison,” published by TBW books in Oakland.

My first thought was very 21st C: WTF?

You find what looks like an institutional file folder, replete with a water stain up top, and a red ink smudge closer to the bottom. It sits there, that red ink stain, judging me. The more I look at it, the more it resembles a tornado.

Open it up, and the left side has a succession of names, including those two aforementioned art stars. Then, on the right, we see a statement claiming that an essay, to follow, was written by a prisoner in San Quentin named Michael Nelson. Whatever we’re to read was apparently written while he was in solitary confinement.

They had my attention all along, but now my eyebrows have stood at attention like a Guantanamo prison guard. What are we about to see, I wonder. And will it be filled with facts about the tragic, embarrassing incarceration rate in this country? It is to be an essay that makes us question how such a dilemma came to pass?

No. Not at all.

Flip out again, and you’re staring a sheet of lined, yellow paper, with text handwritten in blue ink. Or so it seems. I’ve seen enough photobooks to know that it’s a high grade reproduction, but still, it’s interesting.

The flap on the righthand side states that all the proceeds of this publication will go to support the prison education programs that spawned this project. Things begin to fall into place.

The first page of the essay is a letter, in which Mr. Nelson apologizes for missing class, as he cannot attend in his current circumstance. He wonders if he’ll be able to achieve full credit, while locked up by himself in what must be some form of hell.

Again, can I get a WTF?

Open the last two flaps, and we see a reproduction of a famous Sugimoto picture from his movie theater series, and a photo of a drive-in movie theater screen from Misrach’s seminal “Desert Cantos” work. We’re looking at two examples of seminal work from the 20th Century.

Flip up the first page of the yellow-paper-stack, and we find a thoughtful, well-written essay that compares and contrasts the two images. It’s a copy of an actual prison class assignment from 2011.

Wow.

I’ve seen a lot of things in my day, and a lot of books in the 3.5 years that I’ve been writing this column. But I’ve never seen anything like this.

The essay is smart, but takes a turn towards poignant when Mr. Nelson alludes to his own situation in life. The metaphor of a world changing beyond recognition, seen in the pictures, also seems well-chosen, for someone living on the inside.

At the end, we get a page that explains a bit more about Mr. Nelson’s background. Jailed for murder at 15, 17 years into a 25 year sentence. Like many a good Bay Area liberal, he’s found himself working within the system to help others.

His info is followed by straight bios for Mr. Misrach, Mr. Sugimoto, and Mr. Dertinger and Ms. Poor, who both teach at CSU Sacramento, and work with prisoners as well. It was a rare mis-step, I thought, the conventional bio page in a production this original. Good information to have, of course, and smartly placed, when your curiosity is at its peak…but then, we all have bios. (One more piece of PR that makes us feel like we’re products to be bought and sold, in lieu of our prints and services.)

Regardless, I hate to quibble, as this is a very inspiring piece of work. Definitely one to buy, as your money will serve others, and this feels like something rare that people will look back on, down the line.

Bottom Line: Incredibly innovative production

To Purchase “Assignment No. 2: Sugimoto/Misrach: San Quentin Prison” Visit Photo-Eye

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Books are provided by Photo-Eye in exchange for links back for purchase.

Books are found in the bookstore and submissions are not accepted.

Jonathan Blaustein

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