Authors Bruce Jackson and Diane Christian were recently on American Public Media’s The Story with host Dick Gordon to discuss their new book, In This Timeless Time: Living and Dying on Death Row in America, published in April 2012 by CDS Books of the Center for Documentary Studies and the University of North Carolina Press. Jackson and Christian talked about the dynamics of interviewing Death Row inmates in 1979, what has happened to some of those inmates, and how Death Row has changed since then.
Listen to Bruce Jackson and Diane Christian on The Story with host Dick Gordon
Bruce Jackson, a writer and documentary filmmaker and photographer, is James Agee Professor of American Culture and SUNY Distinguished Professor of English at the State University of New York at Buffalo. Diane Christian, a poet, scholar of religious literature, and documentarian, is SUNY Distinguished Teaching Professor of English at the State University of New York at Buffalo
In addition to coauthoring In This Timeless Time, Jackson curated the photography exhibit Full Color Depression: First Kodachromes from America’s Heartland, now on view in the Kreps Gallery at CDS through July 23, 2012. In this interview with CDS publishing intern Joel Mora, Jackson talks about these two projects. (An excerpt of this interview appears in the Spring 2012 issue of CDS’s quarterly publication, Document.)
JM: Let’s start with Full Color Depression. What did you think when you first saw the Kodachrome images?
BJ: I think like everybody else, I had basically thought of the 1930s in black-and-white. I knew when I thought about it consciously that that’s absurd, but my images of the 1930s derive from those FSA black-and-white iconic images of Walker Evans and Dorothea Lange and all the others. I saw these, and—even though they’re at the end of that period, basically the early ‘40s but part of the same project—it caused me to rethink some of the black-and-white images I had seen and to rethink the whole period; it sort of fills in spaces that I suddenly realized had not been filled in before. I see them more as a choice instead of the only thing that might have been done. So I see what the photographers are doing as black-and-white photographers, and then I see these color images as startling color images in their own [right], and I see how some of the photographers are literally figuring out how to see in color and realizing that when you shoot color you shoot differently than you shoot in black-and-white. Before they didn’t have the choice; now they do. So some of them do the same thing they were doing in black-and-white and others start doing composition where color is part of the composition itself. That’s something that’s new. So for me it was very exciting in a lot of ways, in a lot of historical ways, a lot of visual ways, just a lot of ways.
JM: Now that we know they had the option, what do you think their mental process was in picking color over black-and-white?
BJ: A lot of them did both like [Andreas] Feininger. There are two images made by Feininger of a copper mine in Utah. From that same shoot, the Library of Congress collection includes both the black-and-white and color. So some of [the photographers] would do something totally in color, but others would often do it as an adjunct to the black-and-white that they were doing anyway. Because keep in mind that they did not have very much color film at their disposal. It was expensive. It took a long time to get processed. It was a long time before they got to see it. So their mainstay was still black-and-white, and just occasionally they would shoot color.
With some of them, though, it’s clear that they were shooting for color—like Russell Lee. Russell Lee understood the difference between color and black-and-white. There are several Lee photographs in that exhibit that in black-and-white are really boring, like the one of the wheat fields. I printed that. I desaturated it and tried to see what it would look like in black-and-white. He was clearly thinking in color. I think as they got used to using this new film some of them started looking for situations where color could be a critical part of what they photographed. Jack Delano, for example, with his railroad things and his portraits of workers was thinking of that. There’s one Delano image in a railroad roundhouse in Chicago and there in the lower right corner is a barrel with fire. Almost everything else in the image is black with white or gray, but that spurt of fire with little red coals at the bottom changes that whole image, and I think he was aware of that. He did some of that stuff in black-and-white, but sometimes he shot for color; I think he thought color could make a statement. Like I said—and I think I say it in the catalog—one of the things that excited me about this is you can see these people figuring it out because it’s new. The film had just become available, which meant the option had become available; they didn’t have much money, they weren’t well funded, the stuff costs fifty dollars a roll for 35mm film (eighteen frames) in current dollars, so they had to be very careful and parsimonious with what color they shot. They really gave it a lot of thought.
JM: You said [in the catalog] that “the black-and-white images conditioned our perception of the Depression Era.”
BJ: Yes. The FSA black-and-white images—first of all they’ve been printed everywhere; they’re all over the place. And also writers used them, and they influenced the writing. John Steinbeck used Dorothea Lange’s photographs when he was writing The Grapes of Wrath. John Ford looked at those photographs when he made the movie The Grapes of Wrath, and I think a lot of filmmakers looked at those images the FSA did when they made movies about that period toward the end of the ’30s and certainly afterwards. So even color films about the ’30s were influenced by those black-and-white images. It was the largest documentary photograph ever undertaken to my knowledge, and it turned out to have the desired effect—it created a visual image of America. I don’t know what America looked like in the ’30s. I wasn’t around. What I know is what those images look like, and they were black-and-white until I saw these [Kodachrome images]. One of the great things is that the Library of Congress under James Billington put these high-res files online instead of hoarding them as most institutions do, saying if you want to see them you’ve got to give us lot of money. So these are public photographs. They belong to us. They belong to everybody.
JM: There is a somberness and seriousness to the black-and-whites from that time. That’s there in the colors, too, but there seems to be more life in them; they make you feel differently. For instance, those scenes from the Vermont State Fair, or the one in Washington, D.C., with a little girl outside of a store.
BJ: Oh, I love that picture. That’s by Louise Rosskam. Now that picture I point to when I take people around the exhibit, to show what color can do, because it’s got a real rhythm of color. In the middle, the yellow goes almost all the way across, there’s a circle of red, a bit of red fabric and a Prince Albert sign in the store window. There’s the red Coca-Cola sign up above, a bleached-out red on three posters in the window, red on the Pepsi thermometer, and then there’s the little white girl looking down with her hands in her lap wearing a red dress and a black woman and a black kid in blue just to the right of her. That is an image that is very bright, very alive, that would be uninteresting in black-and-white. You wouldn’t have any of that rhythm that I was just talking about.
A lot of the photographers were more playful with color because they could do stuff with it. There are four from the Vermont state fair that you just referred to by Jack Delano. The one of the family with all the girls and one boy—there’s five girls in red or pink dresses, right in the middle of them is the boy in a light turquoise shirt, a woman is holding an infant in blue, and every one of them is looking in a different direction; beyond them are two men wearing straw hats. I think that is a picture that’s both playful—it’s got energy in what’s going on in it even though everyone is standing still—and it’s got that rhythm of color that a black-and-white image would not have.
JM: What if these images had been as much a part of our national consciousness as the black-and-white ones—would we have different perceptions of that time?
BJ: Well, remember Kodachrome is not stable until about ’38 or ’39. It’s introduced in ’35 or ’36, but it’s not very good at first. The processing isn’t good. By ’38 or ’39 it is. So the main period of FSA photography is in the mid-1930s—it was already done by the time these color pictures are made. There aren’t very many of [the color images]. I think there are only 1,616 altogether, and a huge number of those are war propaganda photographs, and a huge number of those are by a guy named Alfred T. Palmer who shoots photographs like he’s shooting advertising for Vogue—he’s always shooting up, people are always smiling, they’re artificially lighted. There are only a few hundred of that total number that are part of the FSA tradition as we generally think of it, so even if they had really gotten out they would’ve been such a small portion of the output that I don’t know how much impact they would’ve made.
The reason this exhibit makes a terrific impact, I think, is because you’re seeing them all at once. You’re seeing thirty-five images, and I printed them big, and I have the technology now to do that. We’re seeing them bigger than any of the photographers who took them ever saw them, and we’re seeing them cleaner than they ever saw them, because Photoshop and Lightroom and a fractal printing program let us do that. If they were printed at the time, they would’ve been sent out as 8 x 10s. The photographers wouldn’t have any control because they were processed in a laboratory, so I don’t think they would’ve made very much of an impact, again because they were so few compared to everything else. It’s only now, in retrospect, that we can single them out, that we see them in distinction to the black-and-white [images] and realize that something else is going on, that something else is possible.
One thing these pictures get us to thinking about is, What if in 1936 Walker Evans was shooting some color sheets, too? He always said he preferred black-and-white. He did some color for Fortune and then when Polaroid gave him an SX-70 he shot thousands of Polaroid color pictures, but the body of the work that we know is mostly black-and-white. What if [Kodachrome] had been available in 1935 or ’34—would his whole aesthetic had taken a different turn? Now that’s the question, but it’s a question that could never be answered.
JM: What was the quality of the film when you originally worked with it, and what was the processing like? Was there a lot of cleanup work?
BJ: I didn’t use the film. I made my prints from the 70–110 megabyte tiff files made available by the Library of Congress. This whole exhibit is done digitally. The Library of Congress posted these very high-res scans, so I worked on them in Photoshop and Lightroom. Some of them I just had to tweak the color a little bit in Lightroom. Some of them had a lot of dirt on them. The one of the wheat field, if open up that file and look at it large you’ll see lots and lots of dust. I didn’t think it was reasonable for me to change anything in their photos, but I did think it was reasonable for me to clean them up the way any lab would do for a photographer. If somebody brought me an 8 x 10 and I was a lab guy and they said make me a print of this I’d make as clean a print as I could. That one of the wheat field I think I took out about a thousand flecks of dust one by one. It took a long time. The Marion Post Wolcott one of the crossroads store with the Jax beer sign was pretty flat, so I worked on the color a bit. I can’t tell if it was flat because her exposure was off—because with Kodachrome, unlike with black-and-white, if you’re off by an f-stop you change everything. You not only change the density of the image but you change the relation of the colors of the image. So I don’t know if her exposure was off or if the lab screwed it up, but in any case, again, I did what a printer would do and that is I tried to correct that. I spent a lot of time with that, and then on the other by her of the workers’ shacks with the cars without the wheels on them. I spent a lot of time trying to bring that up. Others of them, like most of the Delanos and the Lees, I didn’t have to do anything to them; they were perfectly exposed, perfectly printed, they were clean.
JM: It’s pretty amazing how vivid the colors are. I’ll go back to the one with the little girl in front of the store and how the yellow and the blues really pop.
BJ: If you download that file from the Library of Congress it pretty much looks like that. As I look at it now, I think I may have made the blue a little hotter than it was. I’ll have to check it again. I may have brightened the blue a little bit, but that’s something you can do. There are four different blues in that image. There’s blue in the sky, blue on the boy’s shirt, the woman’s jacket, and the blue in the signs on the window, and they are each a different quality of blue. I wanted to preserve that. I tried to print it so that those differences were maintained, so I did that, but all of that is there in the image. It’s nothing I added. It’s nothing that I cooked up. It’s just stuff that I tried to let come out.
JM: That seems like a big responsibility, to adjust these images that come from some of the greatest photographers of our time.
BJ: You’re absolutely right. I didn’t feel I had the right to change anything, because these are people whose work I know and respect. I tried to feel like somebody working in a professional lab. Remember, none of these are pictures that these guys and women would’ve printed themselves. They couldn’t print color then. They had to go to a lab. I have photographer friends now who send their color work to a lab and say, I’d like the blue a little bluer and I’d like the yellow a little brighter and the lab guy goes back and tries to do that. So that’s what I did. I tried to be consistent with what I thought their image was, but also let it look as good as it could.
There’s one of a pile of junked cars by Russell Lee—the rusted cars—and the image is almost all dark blue and browns. That’s a photograph that was very hard to print only because I had to resist the temptation to brighten up the colors. Because what that photograph is about is the muted quality of the image—that and the specificity of it, which is what he was shooting, When you see it, it’s beautiful but it’s very subtle. Some of these are very subtle in the ranges of color. That Feininger of the copper mine is basically two colors. It’s a little patch of blue sky and the rest of it is yellow, but in the in the very lower corner is a town, and it took me a long time to bring that town out without changing the balance of the rest of it. The town was there, but there’s such a range of light in it and such a mass of detail that it got kind of muddy. I think if Feininger had been printing it he would’ve wanted that town, because there’s a church and other buildings and it’s a quality that really sets off the whole rest of the image. That’s one of the things that I spent a lot of time on.
JM: The images were rediscovered in 1978 in the Library of Congress archives, and they’ve been around. What made you want to do this exhibit now?
BJ: I just found them last year. They were around in ’78 and somebody did an exhibit of them, but they haven’t been shown much. It’s only recently that they’ve been turning up in magazines. I went to the Library of Congress to look at them and I found that there were these huge files. So I downloaded some, and they were beautiful. I printed a couple to see what they looked like, and I worked on them and printed them on 24 x 30 sheets. Nobody I knew, knew about them; so I thought, Why not do an exhibit on them.?
JM: An interesting thing about the FSA, as you say in the catalog, is that “the government treated artists as if they were real workers.”
BJ: Remember there was also the federal writers project, construction projects, murals painted on public buildings that were done all over the country—artists were treated as if they were plumbers or electricians, people who had a worthwhile craft that the public could make use of. For several years some of the best artists in the world worked on the larger FSA work and it and supported them. It gave Richard Wright a job, it gave Saul Bellow a job, and it gave these photographers jobs. It gave them a chance to travel. It gave them enough money to shoot in places that they would otherwise not get to shoot, and it provided a record that we own. If you buy a Walker Evans print made from one of his private negatives it’ll cost you thousands of dollars. You could pay twenty-thousand dollars for a Walker Evans picture, or more, but if you buy from the Library of Congress you get an archival quality print for seventy-five bucks because it belongs to the public. It was a great project. What I’m saying is, these are your pictures.
JM: The FSA program has been so idolized by photographers. Having the government back you like that would give you a sense of pride wouldn’t it? What do you think they felt?
BJ: I think it varies enormously depending on the photographer. There are a lot of photographers on that project, some of whom you’ve never heard of, whose work you never saw, and if you saw it you wouldn’t be interested in it. Others of them were already artists and thought of themselves as such, like Walker Evans and Ben Shahn, who would go on to be a famous painter but whose FSA photographs are beautiful. The only book of Shahn photographs that I’ve seen is one put out as a catalog for a Harvard exhibit some years ago, but he did some gorgeous stuff. In a lot of ways more humanly sensitive than Evans—Evans was very formal, but Shahn had heart and his stuff is wonderful. Shahn didn’t know anything about taking pictures and he famously asked Evans, famously,“Walker, how do I do this?” and Evans said, “f/11 and a hundredth of a second” and walked away.
For some [photographers] it really was just a job. For others it was a chance to document things that politically interested them. For others it was a chance to make art that they otherwise couldn’t have made. It varied with each one. Roy Stryker, who headed the project, was doing propaganda for the Roosevelt administration. That was his job. What this was supposed to do was show how the FDR administration was putting America back on it’s feet. It was basically supposed to be rural America. Some of the photographers Stryker fought all the time, like Evans. He and Evans didn’t get along at all. Evans would disappear for weeks at a time. Evans sometimes would only send a portion of the photographs he took. Occasionally, he sent Stryker photographs he had taken a year before because he was having an affair with a woman in New Orleans and he was off screwing around and wasn’t taking pictures. Stryker was bugging him, so Evans sent him some older negatives. It was a very various operation.
JM: Let’s move to In This Timeless Time. Since we’ve talked about color versus black-and-white, why did you choose black-and-white? There are some images that were shot in color but in the book are duotone.
BJ: Some of it was economic. It just costs a great deal more to do a four-color book. Let me tell you how it came about. Diane Christian, my wife, and I went down [to Texas] to do a film and to do a book about life on Death Row. I wasn’t down there to do still photographs. I wasn’t primarily thinking in terms of still photographs. So we did our book and film, both called Death Row; the film came out in ’79; the book in ’80. We continued to be interested in capital punishment, and then I looked at my negatives and realized I had a lot of interesting photographs from that place, too. So I thought, Why don’t we do a book? What we decided is that the work we did then was about that place then, but what’s happened since? So [in the new book] we have photographs of those men then, and that place then, and notes about what happened to them since. Then we have a long middle section where we talk about what’s happened to capital punishment in America since the killings started, and then we have a methodological section where we explain how we did it and why we did it. Usually with books like this, you just get a book about the subject with nothing about the intelligence that produced it, or the politics that produced it, or the work that produced it. We thought that should be part of it, too.
Anyway, when I did the photographic part [of In This Timeless Time] I found with a few exceptions that the best of the images were black-and-white. There were some color [images], but not enough justify the book in color; if you’re going to do some pages in color you have to do large sections in color, which then would control the organization. The organization of images shouldn’t be based on which happen to be color and which happen to be black-and-white. As I said it’s usually more expensive, so we decided to go and do it in duotone and I think one or two of the images in there is one that I converted to grayscale from color. If the good photos were predominantly color then we would’ve done it as a color book, but I didn’t feel they were.
JM: Before your work on that particular Death Row you had opportunities to shoot others but declined. What was it about that one, that you finally felt you should shoot there?
BJ: I had done a lot of work in prisons. Seven or eight of my books are about prisons. I had been offered the opportunity in several to see Death Row, and I never went. I thought it was voyeuristic. I thought other [non–Death Row] prisoners, if I was there, could get away from me. Death Rows, it seemed to me that people were trapped there, and I didn’t have a project there so I never went. However, I did in 1978 see this particular Death Row, and I realized it was different from other prisons. I thought it was just one more part of prison but it’s not. It’s totally different and it’s totally different in this regard—this is what the title of the book refers to—in prison you’re doing time. You ask anyone who’s been in prison where you’ve been, they say, I was doing time. If you ask somebody in prison what are you doing they give you the amount of time they’re serving. In Death Row nobody is doing time. Time doesn’t count. Time is not your sentence. Your sentence on Death Row is to be killed. You’re only held on Death Row until whether or not they decide they can do it. So Death Row doesn’t exist in the legal world. It’s a limbo. So the whole psychology of it, the feeling of it, the nature of it is very different.
In the summer of ’78, my wife and I were in a conference in Sun Valley and I mention this to a man named Carey McWilliams who was editor of The Nation magazine—I occasionally wrote for him—and I say, “Somebody should do a film about this because it’s different from other prisons,” and he said, “You should,” and I said, “I don’t do films, with films you have to work with other people; I’m a writer, I don’t like working with other people. Writers work alone.” He said, “You have to do it,” and I thought, Well, what he means is that I’m such a sensible person and all that, and I said, “No,” and he said, “No, you have to.” I said, “Why do I have to?” He said, “You have the access.” The way he said it was like there’s an ethical responsibility—I could do it, hardly anybody else could do it, and therefore I should do it. So I did it and Diane did it. We had the access and we thought people ought to know about it, so we did it, and then as I said our interest in it continued over the years and this new book in a way connects to that earlier work but it connects it through time.
JM: What were you wanting to pull emotionally from the reader? The photos are beautiful, but some of the subjects have done really horrendous things. You seem to find a way to make them all individuals.
BJ: That is what those photos are about. It’s exactly what their about. A lot of people look at those photos and say, but they look like anybody else. That’s the point—they are like anybody else. Monsters don’t look like monsters and most of them aren’t monsters anyway. A few there were, but they look like anybody else, too. It’s only in movies that the evil people look like evil people. In real life they look like you and me. As you know, there’s one guy whose photo appears several times who was totally innocent; cleared by DNA evidence [Kerry Max Collins]. So who lives there? Who are these people? A lot of prisoners say the walls, the wire doesn’t exist to keep us in but to keep you out. This is a world most people never see, and it is populated with people who look like us; that’s part of what we wanted to show.
JM: But what about that conflict that the viewer has? For example, other than the fact that they’re on Death Row, the photo of Ronald “Candyman” O’Bryan playing dominoes with Raymond Riles seems so nice and normal. But then you read the caption and find out O’Bryan murdered his son with cyanide-laced Halloween candy. It’s weird.
BJ: It is weird. It is but deal with it. I don’t have to deal with it for you. I showed it to you. I think that’s one of things the book should do, is give a reader or give a looker something that the reader or looker has to deal with. I’m not your babysitter. Here’s a piece of the world, here’s what it looks like, here are the conflicts inherent in it. Here’s this fat guy sitting there, straddling a bench, playing dominoes, looking innocuous—you could see him in a city park playing checkers with some other old guy—and he puts cyanide in his kid’s candy for the insurance money and he’s going to be executed, and he has been. So when you look at that picture now you’re looking at a dead man, so there’s a third conflict. You’re seeing him frozen in time. It tells you what happened before—he killed his kid—and what happened afterward—he got executed.
Now Diane and I spent very little time talking about their crimes, and we told them we weren’t there to talk about their crimes. Neither the first book we did [Death Row] nor [In This Timeless Time] is about their crimes. The first one was about Death Row, that prison like no other prison, and this one is about capital punishment in which that Texas Death Row becomes in a way the illustration of the whole Death Row experience. You’re looking at men on one Death Row at one moment in time, but what we say in the new book is, take this as a simulacrum of all the Death Rows. Because they may look different, but the basic existential condition of those places, where you have men and women under a sentence of death either waiting for it to take place or waiting for some judge somewhere to say it’s not going to take place, is the same.
JM: That’s the success of it—you’re forcing the viewer to deal with it.
BJ: Yeah, and if you find it complicating and unsettling, well that’s because it is complicated and unsettling. The fact that they did it that’s on them; this is on us.
JM: You also write how Death Row has changed since your original work. Could you do that project again now?
BJ: I couldn’t even visit it now. I tried real hard. Diane and I tried to get back to Texas, because Death Row has moved to another prison in Texas. The physical conditions are much more restrained and restrictive now. I think it’s sadistic, but as I said that existential condition is the same. So I wrote and asked if I could visit it and see what it looks like, and I never got an answer. A former warden, the guy who was the warden of the prison where the executions took place for twenty years, he tried to get them to let me in and they stonewalled him, too. They would not let me in. Not a chance. There are very few people who spend much time on Death Row. There’s a guy who did a book of photographs about Texas Death Row some years ago and he says he’s the only one who’s ever been allowed and that was fifteen years after we were there. Other than us, I don’t know anybody else who’s been given a hall pass to Death Row in Texas. I don’t know about any other states, but not in Texas certainly.
JM: In the book you talk about the methodology of the project, and there are even some photos of you at work talking to the prisoners. When you see those photos, which are from 1979, what do you remember of that time?
BJ: It’s interesting for me to see [those images] now. I remember that time very well, but as I often tell my own students the fact that you remember something doesn’t mean that it happened, it means only that you remember it. Memory is a very active organ I think. I look at those photos and I remember standing there. I remember being there. I remember the people I was talking to vividly. The photographs help me do that. That’s one of the things photographs are. This goes back to the beginning of our conversation. Documentary photographs are a piece of externalized memory. Just as those FSA photos of the 1930s and 1940s are part of our national externalized memory, these Death Row photographs are part of my externalized memory. I can take something that may or may not be in my head and show it to you. Which is great fun to do. That’s one of the reasons documentary photographers do what they do. We want to show you something.
It’s great fun for me to have these two projects coming about at the same time. One, being able to work on those photographs from those photographers whose worked I loved from the past and bring it into the present, and then bring that work Diane Christian and I did in 1979 and bring that into the present as well. Faulkner’s got a line, something like, the past isn’t dead; it isn’t even past.