Prison Obscura

Prison Obscura

The New School

Josh Begley, Facility 492, 2013. Photograph. From the series “Prison
Map.” Courtesy of the artist. © Digital Globe USDA Farm
Service Agency.
January 31, 2015
Prison Obscura

February 5–April 17, 2015

Opening reception: February 5, 6:30–8:30pm; curator’s tour at 5:45pm

Anna-Maria and Stephen Kellen Gallery
The Sheila C. Johnson Design Center (SJDC)

Parsons The New School for Design
66 Fifth Avenue
New York, NY
Hours: Friday–Wednesday noon–6pm, Thursday noon–8pm
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The Sheila C. Johnson Design Center’s (SJDC) Anna-Maria and Stephen Kellen Gallery at Parsons School of Design launches its spring exhibition, Prison Obscura, with a public reception on Thursday, February 5, 6:30 to 8:30pm. The reception will be preceded by a curator’s tour at 5:45pm.

Curated by Prison Photography editor Pete Brook, Prison Obscura explores an area of society that, in spite of its explosive growth, continues to exist in the shadows: the country’s prisons and jails. Presenting rarely seen vernacular, surveillance, evidentiary, and prisoner-made photographs, the exhibition sheds light on the prison industrial complex and those it confines.

Brook noted that while most prison photos—hackneyed and clichéd photos of razor wire, anonymous silhouettes and hands through bars—serve the purposes of stock photography agencies, “we mustn’t give up on images.”

“Instead,” he said, “we must look toward more elusive and unexpected types of imagery.”

Such imagery in this exhibition comes from artists Josh Begley, Alyse Emdur, Robert Gumpert, Paul Rucker, Mark Strandquist, and Kristen S. Wilkins with a mural by members of the Restorative Justice and Mural Arts Programs at the State Correctional Institution in Graterford, Pennsylvania.

The works in Prison Obscura vary from aerial views of prison complexes to intimate portraits of incarcerated individuals. Artist Josh Begley and musician Paul Rucker use imaging technology to depict the sheer size of the prison industrial complex, which houses 2.3 million Americans in more than 6,000 prisons, jails and detention facilities at a cost of 70 billion USD per year; Steve Davis led workshops for incarcerated juveniles in Washington State to reveal their daily lives; Kristen S. Wilkins collaborates with female prisoners on portraits with the aim to compete against the mugshots used for both news and entertainment in mainstream media; Robert Gumpert presents a nine-year project pairing portraits and audio recordings of prisoners from San Francisco jails; Mark Strandquist uses imagery to provide a window into the histories, realities and desires of some incarcerated Americans; and Alyse Emdur illuminates moments of self-representations with collected portraits of prisoners and their families taken in prison visiting rooms as well as her own photographs of murals in situ on visiting room walls. Also included are images presented as evidence during the landmark Brown v. Plata case, a class action lawsuit that which went all the way to the Supreme Court of the United States where it was ruled that every prisoner in the California State prison system was suffering cruel and unusual punishment due to overcrowded facilities and the failure by the state to provide adequate physical and mental healthcare.

At The New School, Prison Obscura connects to Humanities Action Lab (HAL) Global Dialogues on Incarceration, an interdisciplinary hub that brings together a range of university-wide, national, and global partnerships to foster public engagement on America’s prison system.

Prison Obscura is a traveling exhibition made possible with the support of the John B. Hurford ‘60 Center for the Arts and Humanities and Cantor Fitzgerald Gallery at Haverford College, Haverford, PA.


The Sheila C. Johnson Design Center is an award-winning campus center for Parsons School of Design that combines learning and public spaces with exhibition galleries to provide an important new downtown destination for art and design programming. Based at The New School, the mission of the Center is to generate an active dialogue on the role of innovative art and design in responding to the contemporary world. Its programming encourages an interdisciplinary examination of possibility and process, linking the university to local and global debates. The center is named in honor of its primary benefactor, New School Trustee and Parsons Board of Governors member Sheila C. Johnson. The design by Rice+Lipka Architects is the recipient of numerous awards, including an Honor Award from the American Institute of Architects.

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The New School
January 31, 2015

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