Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Deborah Luster, January 26

Our first visiting artist of the spring semester is photographer Deborah Luster.

When I asked her what she has read that has affected her work, she answered:

I studied literature in school. Photography came to me quite late.

I read lots of Southern literature: Flannery O'Connor, Eudora Welty, Walker Percy, etc.

A poet that I have worked with C.D. Wright. Her book Cooling Time is prose-ish.

A poet Frank Stanford. Frank wrote The Battlefield Where the Moon Says I Love You is amazing.
I love W.G. Sebald. Anything. 

Right now I'm reading Diane Arbus, A Chronology (Aperture). It's really interesting reading from her personal correspondence. She was so verbally articulate. (If you can see it and say it you just may be able to do it.) An important concept for working photographers, I believe.

Here is an excerpt from Stanford's 15,000 line poem The Battlefield Where the Moon Says I Love You:

Here are some links for learning about Luster and her work:


  1. NPR video/article of "One Big Self"
    - Deborah Luster's work relatively deals with a lot of poetry, literature and readings emotionally to be incorporated into her understanding of the work she produces. She gathers a lot of inspiration from these readings and as it relates to her experience. Her mother and grandmother's constant use of photography emphasized the importance of it and it made her focus more on communicating through it so it came to her naturally. It was a place for her to escape to. her mother was murdered when Deborah was a child. This incident affected her purpose and motivation to project the lives of prisoners and poverty in response to her mother's murder. The poems were originated from brief conversations with inmates. The experience became more of a self-realization and enlightenment. It looked like an act of forgiveness and acceptance to what had happened and overlooking the small things. She valued and wanted to show that everyone is a whole, not sum of their worst or best acts. This was best captured in perspective from prison. Some experiences became very sentimental and rewarding for many of the inmates.

    "Tooth for an Eye" The New York Times art review
    - Photographs in prison for inmates became very personal, memorable, and intimate so that photos were sized small enough to be held by hands and kept. The portraits were meant for a reason, not really meant for display, show, or self achievement of the artist. Rather it created several passages for outsiders to reflect and really understand the lives of a different society and another meaning in life. This created and opened many relationships between the inmates and their families and friends. As a witness, Deborah sees this to foster and nurture the relationship to develop further. It cultivated to something stronger and helped build not only the individual's life but improved the connection of the community as a whole. Even with the violence still present, the perspective had changed. Most of the photographs were formal and sober on the exterior, but behind it carried a heavy weight of burden, history, hopes, remorse, dreams, and memories.

    "The Last Supper" poem by Frank Stanford- Battlefield where the Moon says I love you
    - Quote "Why don't you let us in on it for a change Pual says we follow you around like we were a bunch of sheep picking up your tab bailing you out of jail coming up here all the time for supper and what do we get to eat nothing, why can't you have a little faith in us jesus."
    - This characterized the scenario of prisoners being seen in photographs by outsiders trying to prove themselves. They want to be dug deeper to gain some level self respect and understanding from their peers and family members.

  2. Deborah Luster's website
    - "Tooth for Eye": photographs centralized around many doorways and passages to somewhere or corners of dead-end. It encompasses the life in her city, a place where life and death coexist, neither free of the others' influence.
    - "One Big Self": this gave a whole new, insightful view and experience to both parties inside and out. It allowed an opportunity for inmates to display and express themselves as a whole and how they wanted to be perceived as with the help of borrowing tools, clothes, props, etc. from Deborah and C.D Wright. It became more like a compilation of separate, personal projects for each subject. Looking at these strangers of homicide, I can say I easily overlooked the actions of one and see the photo as it is, exactly how they want me to perceive them or the event as. It is serious, deep, sentimental, strong and it makes me think harder about our society. It made me excited and confused, curious ultimately of their dreams and hopes. I thought it was interesting to use photography to solves violent crimes, mend broken relationships and feelings when it was ultimately used to identify criminals and became an essential tool for law enforcement and crime prevention. How one photograph of the same subject is used entirely for different, opposite reasons.

    "Catherine Edelman Gallery" text about Deborah
    - "See beyond their crimes... to suggest that our punitive models are as reflective of who we are as our reward system" was how she wanted the projects to be perceived. I believe she had been very successful as an artist because she carried out her purpose and it works. What is at stake is the fact and idea that photography is strong enough to be carry society and direct a lot of people's opinions and emotions towards a certain purpose. It can cause people to rethink and speculate our purpose in life. Everyday aspects of life and detail no matter how small or big can be photographed to an extent and be memorized, inspected, observed, subjected, discussed, and ultimately be carried out for a purpose.
    I think in retrospect, it became a dream for her. She found what she wanted to do, as well as enabling the prisoners (whole other community) discover themselves and making outsiders aware and realize what they are capable of making them feel. It has affected a great deal of people.

    Questions: Has this project fulfilled the gap of emptiness for her and the loss of her mother?
    - Beside the vulnerability, how did the inmates feel and react to her idea of photographing them? Did they know they were going to be exposed?
    - Were they first posed by her or were they able to pose themselves? Were they confused about how to express themselves?

  3. “The Battlefield Where the Moon Says I Love You” excerpt was the most interesting account of the Last Supper I have ever read. I can easily imagine things going down the way Frank Stanford describes it. Biblical figures who are just vague abstract concepts to me quickly became real people with real problems. It is relatable even if the language and culture is not that familiar to me. This is just like the photography and video performance art done by Deborah Luster.

    The attention grabber is the explanation of the origins of her work, but it transcends those tragic events. It is documenting a hidden painful reality with a more holistic and less judgmental approach. In it, people we do our best to forget about and dehumanize are given shades of gray. We can move beyond the perceived absolutes of good and evil if we are allowed to increase our knowledge of things. Luster gives us a view of prisoners that outsiders rarely have the chance to experience. These photographs seem to capture a bit of the sitter’s soul and graft it onto our own.

    The format and style of the pictures generate an air of sentimentality. It feels like it is from another time. I wish I had taken the photography art history class, so I could have a better understanding of how and why these images look the way they do.

  4. I must say that I am absolutely enchanted with the emotional depth she is able to achieve.

    In regards to "One Big Self," the photographs of the inmates allow the viewers to see into the sitter's soul. It must have taken great courage for her to start "knocking on doors" of prisons as well as for the inmates to bare themselves as they did. I love that the gallery-goers were able to interact with the photographs during the installation at SFMoMA. I personally, and quite likely everbody, relate better to objects that I can touch. The tactile senses seem to make them more real, more personal. The cabinet sounding like jail cell doors and having the visitors under surveillance...wonderful, accidental or not.

    As for "Tooth for an Eye," handled so poetically and with dignity. A subject matter that is both personal to her and public. We are literally inundated with homicide in the media. She makes it personal and puts in in the viewers face...gently, quietly. The uninhabited locations are all at once beautiful, desolate and incredibly saddening. Presenting the images as round instead rectilinear seems to make them something more.

    I am VERY excited to hear her speak tomorrow.

  5. “The Battlefield Where the Moon Says I Love You” simply just drew me in, I loved it. I must have read it 3 times, I can not wait to hear her speak tonight and see how she is in person, should be great.

  6. A little insight into Jeanne Tovrea, Deborah's mother.