What a story by Pete Brook, a Portland writer whose blog is on prison photography. In a post yesterday, he tracked how a cache of 400 images shot by young, incarcerated gang members in 1980s Southern California made its way to an art fair where it sold for $45,000.
If these images deserve a $45,000 price tag, they deserve a vast amount of research to uncover the stories behind them. Who knows if the (presumed) new owner has the intent or access to the research resources required?
Along that same vein, here we identify a difference between the art market and the preservationists; between free trade capitalism and the efforts of museums, historians and academics; between those that trade rare items and those that are best equipped to do the research on rare items.
Whether speculative or accurate, the $45,000 price is way beyond the reach of museums. Photography and art dealers who are limber by comparison to large, immobile museums are working the front lines of preservation.
“Some might say that selling [images such as these] is exploitation, but a dealer’s willingness to monotize something like this is one form of cultural preservation,” argues [Myles] Haselhorst [owner of Ampersand Gallery and Fine Books in Portland, which originally acquired the collection at the Portland Postcard Show for a price in the low four figures, he said]. “If I had not been in a position to both see the collection’s significance and commodify it, albeit well below the final $45,000 mark, these photographs could have easily ended up in the trash.”
Prison polaroids are emerging online, Brook also writes. Many of the shots are taken in visiting rooms or with contraband cameras. Then there's this Tumblr, In Duplo, where mugshots are juxtaposed with Facebook portraits.
*Good on you, sir, for calling out Harper's Books dumb, offensive conflation of gangs and rap.
Thanks to Jen Kagan for the tip.