When we talk about mass incarceration, we often forget the individuals who, one by one, constitute the mass. In her series "Black Is the Day, Black Is the Night," photographer Amy Elkins fleshes out statistics, conjuring portraits of particular prisoners' inner worlds — their memories, dreams, fears and desires.
The series is one of six projects in the acutely intelligent and emotionally penetrating show "Amy Elkins: Photographs of Contemporary Masculinity" at Orange Coast College, curated by Tyler Stallings, director of school’s Frank M. Doyle Arts Pavilion. The foundation for "Black Is the Day" (2009-16) is the correspondence Elkins maintained with men at least a decade into their life and death row sentences. She transposes facets of identity revealed in their letters into visual form, creating composite photographs that represent, for instance, one inmate's childhood memory of being subsumed by the sea under a darkening sky. A man who wrote poetry in prison is portrayed via snippets of text barely legible in gray against black: "Like a beast among beasts I go! Am I a beast?" Every image, most pronouncedly the portraits of the men themselves, is marked by compromise — pixelation or blur or another form of indeterminacy. The amount of "image loss," as Elkins describes it, reflects the proportion of years the men have served to total years lived. Erosion of the self and suppression of spirit are utterly clear, just as the pictures are not.
There were 746 people (mostly men) on death row in California when Elkins, based in L.A., made her latest series, "The Golden State," this year. She layered their mug shots to create 26 composite portraits (12 are shown here), similar to the work Nancy Burson has done to digitally aggregate the faces of world leaders, news anchors and members of other categories. The heads here oscillate between individual and type, each face contributing its distinct features to the generalized whole, a graphically jarring illustration of the predominance of racial minorities (67%) in the state's death row population. Each mesmerizing, multiplicitous figure consists of a fixed stare and quavering contour, a profoundly human blend of the known and unknowable.
In two earlier series, Elkins shot college rugby players after a game and dancers (ballet and contemporary) after training, offering up two conventionally rendered but radically different answers to the question of what constitutes an athletic male body. Her "Wallflower" pictures are more engrossing, each one serving as a referendum on our gendered associations with beauty, strength and vulnerability. Elkins posed her male subjects shirtless against floral backgrounds. Some, like heavily muscled "Shawn," appear detached from the soft, sinuous decoration behind them. Others, like "Rowan," appear wholly continuous with it. The ornate tattoos on his shoulders fuse, in the picture, with the background of ebullient blossoms. Elkins reminds us, through her thought-provoking work, that our assumptions about maleness might be narrow, but the spectrum of identity is broad. Masculinity is expressed one man at a time.