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WHEN I FIRST GAZED UPON THESE PRISON PHOTOGRAPHS, I COULD NOT HELP but feel the intense emotional and powerful impact they project. It is a miracle that they even survived, were it not for the foresight of Bruce Jackson, who stumbled upon them in a prison drawer when he was photographing a state prison farm in Cummings, Arkansas. The year was 1975, and old pictures like that were considered junk. Without question, had fate not put Mr. Jackson there at that moment, it would not have been long before they were tossed in the trash.

I have collected anonymous snapshots, including police mugshots, for nearly 15 years, and do so because of their honesty and directness. These portraits are incredible. Taken at the low point of someone’s life between the years of 1915 - 1940, they reveal a poignant struggle for survival during times of intense racism, economic and social despair. Prison is a horrible place. It always has been, it always will be.

For more than 40 years, Bruce Jackson has been documenting—in books, photographs, audio recording and film—inmates’ lives in American prisons. The 121 images are published together for the first time in a remarkable new book,
Pictures from a Drawer. As Jackson describes in an absorbing introduction, the function of these photos was not portraiture— their function was to “fold a person into the controlled space of a dossier.” Here, freed from their prison “jackets” and printed at sizes far larger than their originals, these one-time ID photos have now become portraits. Jackson’s restoration transforms what were small bureaucratic artifacts into moving images of real men and women. Pictures from a Drawer also contains an extraordinary description of everyday life at Cummins prison in the 1950s, written originally by hand and presented to Jackson in 1973 by its author, a longtime inmate.

Bruce Jackson is SUNY Distinguished Professor and Samuel P. Capen Professor of American Culture, University at Buffalo. He is the author of more than 20 other books, including
The Story Is True: The Art and Meaning of Telling Stories (Temple), a documentary filmmaker and photographer. The French government named him Chevalier in L’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres, France’s highest honor in the arts and humanities.

To order the book and learn more, just go to Temple Press here.

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