Still Life: Killing Time – Ed Clark

Last night to the Photographers’ Gallery, not for an opening but a book launch. I was greatly impressed by Edmund Clark‘s still life images from E Wing at Kingston Prison in Portsmouth when I saw them at Rhubarb Rhubarb in Birmingham this Summer, and pleased to learn from him then that they were to be published by Dewi Lewis (who was at the time reviewing portfolios at the table in front of mine.)

Some of my favourite photographs come in the opening section of ‘Let Us Know Praise Famous Men‘; a bed, its worn sheets starkly illuminated by Walker’s flash, a small bowl on a shelf, and through the doorway an oil-cloth covered table with an oil lamp in a sparsely furnished room, a pair of boots on bare-dust earth, a family’s stock of cutlery ledged behind a strip of wood. In Evans’s case there are of course also portraits, unrelenting gazes into his lenses, direct, honest (while his and James Agee’s motives were perhaps less so.) But for me it has always been the images without people that told me far more about the particular exigences of these people living on the edge of America.

Ed Clark is not Walker Evans, but these images seem to me to be in the same tradition, precisely seen and organised, recorded in detail on a large format camera (in colour rather than black and white.) And of course it is the details that matter, that grab the photographer’s and our thoughts and feelings. Among the more powerful of them are the various lists that mark out time – newspaper rotas, the day’s activities (or rather lack of), a prisoner’s handwritten lists of his lunch for the next 3 weeks, even the series of steps required to use the toilet printed in large for a senile inmate. But there are also many strong visual clues to the nature of life for those in this particular dead end (and the final image in the book shows a coffin in the crematorium chapel.)

Wisely, Ed Clark decided not to include images of the elderly “murderers, rapists, paedophiles and other violent criminals” whose time was being killed in E Wing in his project, although some were happy to be photographed. Most of them are inside for acts that we find reprehensible, although occasionally we may glimpse our own darker sides and shiver “there but for fortune...”, but despite the disgust we feel for what they have done, it is hard to look at these images and not to feel a considerable disquiet at the way that we – and our agents, the prison service – treat these elderly, sometimes senile, men.

Side of Inmate’s Cupboard (C) Edmund Clark.

We changed to decimal coinage on February 15th 1971, roughly 35 years before this picture was taken. A life sentence, ordered like the chart in neat rows.

Government and opposition eagerly scramble over each other to prove who is toughest on crime, inventing new offences, making sentences longer and longer and sending more and more to jail. We have more and more elderly prisoners, many of whom no longer present little if any real threat to the community at large, and for whom prison is an inappropriate place. As the images suggest, you don’t need 20 foot razor wire fences of its initial image for people who need a stair lift or walking frame.

E Wing was of course a small if inadequate step to care for these people within a prison system where the weak and elderly – as Erwin James points out in his afterword – are easy prey in the struggle all prisoners have to survive. And housing only 25 men it was for its 8 years of existence the only unit catering for a prison population of over 2000 over-60s.

This is a powerful book, and a disturbing one, and it deserves a wide audience, not just among those of us with an interest in photography but with all who care about the kind of society in which we live. It should be published in magazines and newspapers and other media. It’s work that thoughtfully and graphically raises important questions – but importantly without preaching or suggesting solutions. Every politician should have a copy, and think carefully about where their competition for the red-top vote is taking us.

Peter Marshall

Edmund CLARK
Dewi Lewis Publishing
Hardback, 72 pages. £16.99
43 photos, 310 x 247mm
ISBN: 9781904587538

Two exhibitions of this work have so far been confirmed:

Light House, The Chubb Buildings, Wolverhampton: 18 Jan – 12 Mar, 2008
Aspex, The Vulcan Building, Portsmouth: 1 Feb – 20 Mar, 2008

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