Pieces of women peek out from behind shadows, prison bars, and maximum-security doors in the current collection of Jane Atwood’s photographs at the Slusser Gallery. Taken throughout the 1990s in prisons from Arizona to the former Soviet Union, Atwood’s black-and-white photos chronicle myriad struggles for incarcerated women. At times, Atwood has an advocate’s eye: an image shows a husband bent over his wife’s corpse (the description says she died because she wasn’t allowed to have an inhaler in her cell). But at other times, the shocking access she has to personal moments colludes with the privacy-stripping dehumanization of prisons. The photo of a woman receiving a gynecological exam—required after a conjugal visit, according to the description—disturbs me most because it doesn’t look clinical. The prisoner wears oversize wool socks, a big winter sweater, and a matter-of-fact expression. She’s calm, as if no one is watching her. The image is almost (I shudder at the thought) intimate.
Atwood continually capitalizes on the similarity of inmate and intimate. In a shot of a “prison sauna for inmates,” several naked women stand around basins washing themselves. One looks down at her body, smiling slightly, drenching herself with a bucket of water. She looks like a Greek goddess, I think, as I admire the way the water cascades from her breasts like a fountain. Only a small industrial light in the far back corner of the frame reminds me this is prison.
Occasionally, Atwood’s descriptions stand in direct contrast to the photograph she’s taken. One violent image depicts officers holding down a naked woman. Two male guards stand in the foreground—one is just a shadowy profile looming over the frame. Only the woman’s breasts are in focus. Her face is obscured, but a nipple appears in stark relief against the white arm another officer is holding down. The description reads, “Corrections officers strip a newly arrested woman who tried to commit suicide by swallowing her own clothes. Male corrections officers were called only when women guards proved incapable of handling the situation.” The description suggests that the image can’t stand alone—that even Atwood is troubled by its violence.
I long for deeper descriptions of other provocative images. “Newly booked woman in a holding cell” hardly explains a photograph of a naked woman sprawled, belly down, on the floor. She has something stuffed in her mouth. Is she the woman who swallowed clothes? A dark stain on the floor—blood? vomit? peeling paint?—is a queasy reminder that something is missing from this picture. The right third of the frame is obstructed by a dark blur, presumably a door frame, echoing my frustration. Although it’s one of the few photos that show an entire body, it offers only a snippet of meaning.
After seeing these images, taking a photograph seems less metaphorical. Atwood’s point of view—from tenderness to terror—operates like a study in voyeurism and rarely portrays a prisoner’s point of view. But the problematic perspective makes the collection’s troubling beauty even more palpable, if not entirely palatable.
The exhibition runs through Friday, November 7, at the U-M School of Art & Design’s Slusser Gallery on North Campus.