GEOFFREY JAMES: Inside Kingston Penitentiary
Glenbow Museum, Calgary,
Feb. 14 to May 17, 2015
By Steven Ross Smith
"The Dome from above"
Geoffrey James, "The Dome from above," 2013, archival ink jet print.
Bleak, oppressive. These words echo on viewing Geoffrey James’ photographs taken at Kingston Penitentiary in 2013, shortly before the closing of the 178-year-old prison.
"Change of seasons ceremony (1)"
Geoffrey James, "Change of seasons ceremony (1)," 2013, archival ink jet print.
James’ documentary stance here captures the facility and its inhabitants in 44 archival inkjet prints. Formats and sizes vary, with half in black and white. Where colour appears, it is to potent effect. For example, North wall with the main gate shows the building’s exterior – its stone façade in sun or shadow, muted grey and tawny umber tones suggesting interior gloom. In another photograph, Exercise yard built for female inmates, but never used, bright pink chairs sit in a grassy fenced area. Matter-of-fact titles are clinical, surreal – Book drop-off in the Dome, with absorption pad for warning shots and Heating control with spitballs.
Geoffrey James, "Aboriginal ground," 2013, archival ink jet print.
Inmates and prison staff are seen in black and white. Guards and workers seem sombre. The visitors’ room is sparse, unwelcoming. Most photos of inmates show aboriginal men in a designated area that features a teepee. In Change of seasons ceremony, the men appear serious, joyless. One photograph offers a notable contrast. Native inmate is a close portrait of a handsome man who seems not yet drained of life by incarceration, who sports on his shoulder and biceps – angled to the camera – a magnificent tattoo of a ‘chief’ in feathered headdress.
"Exercise yard built for female inmates, but never used"
Geoffrey James, "Exercise yard built for female inmates, but never used," 2013, archival ink jet print.
Images of the penitentiary’s architecture, primarily late Georgian, show a design aesthetic – a circular atrium seen from a high angle, an elegant stone arch – these in contrast to hand-gouged plaster; small, narrow cells decorated with graffiti or graphic images; and bars, barbed wire and grille-work fences. A few photos provide strange juxtapositions – Lake Ontario and a marina just beyond the limestone walls.
"Recently vacated cell, with abandoned belongings"
Geoffrey James, "Recently vacated cell, with abandoned belongings," 2013, archival ink jet print.
Accompanying the photos are panel renderings of administrative rules and inmate musings, such as a poem by Randy Hillson that begins: “They call this place just west of hell / You’ll make no friends, that’s just as well.” A finely produced book from Black Dog Publishing serves as the exhibition catalogue, though not all photos in the book are in this show’s mounting.
"The prison seen from the marina"
Geoffrey James, "The prison seen from the marina," 2013, archival ink jet print.
James, Welsh-born, Oxford-educated and Toronto-based, is an award-winning photographer known for landscape – formal gardens and sylvan sites – and alienating human environments. As influences he claims Kertesz, Lartigue, Schwitters and Poussin. James says his photographic projects bear witness to subjects idyllic or brutal.
Here his camera enters an institutional enclosure, reveals what humans have built to incarcerate, and the human nature contained within. His pictures of Kingston Penitentiary do not aestheticize the subject. Neutral, yet emotional, they portray a harsh reality, one now gone, but witnessed, and so held in public memory.
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