Parchman: A Review

Documentary photography has been an instrument for social reform since Jacob Riis, who focused the nation’s eyes on the grinding poverty of New York City slums in How the Other Half Lives (1880), inspiring the work of photographers who seek to depict history as well as comment on society. A branch of this genre, prison photography, is by nature dramatic and controversial, focusing on the human condition in confinement (at times awaiting execution) and though their ability to convey the reality of prison as opposed to the projected feelings of the viewer is dubious, the images are inevitably stark and gritty, grim and sullen.

Taking photos of Parchman Prison is like shooting fish in a barrel; it’s a given that the results will be iconic on a documentary level. While it’s arguable that the cruelties and injustices at Parchman are no more heinous than in any other penal environment, this is after all Mississippi’s state prison and carries a particular notoriety for that singular reason. But with Rushing’s Parchman what we have is a failure to communicate; the photos are technically precise, yet without resonance, more substance than style and not edited to bring emotion. The lack of angles, of effective use of light, shadows and contrast is evident; often the quality is purely that of straight-on recording, which in most cases is lifeless and banal, with no finesse and less feeling. The inclusion of text from the subjects (albeit in the form of images) undermines an emphasis on the photographs themselves, leaving us with a definitive visual record of Parchman in the 1990s, which is nothing to deride in terms of an historical document, providing an appropriate companion volume to two significant books about Parchman that appeared in the 90s, Taylor’s Down on Parchman Farm (1993) and Oshinsky’s Worse Than Slavery (1996), but nothing to acclaim in terms of art.

This is University Press of Mississippi’s second foray into the field of prison photography; in 1997 it published Ken Light’s Texas Death Row, which followed on the heels of Light’s Delta Time (Smithsonian Institution Press; 1995). Yet even given the lack of effectiveness in the photographs, it’s reassuring that University Press of Mississippi is still on top of their game; though it has at times dropped the editorial ball, when it comes to putting together a quality product, University Press can and has given Rushing’s photos good framing.

(Photo copyright Kim Rushing)

4 Replies to “Parchman: A Review”

  1. Did you read the book or just look at the pictures? Fish in a barrel indeed! Have you ever been in death row? Do you know what it smells like? I still go to Parchman every Wednesday night to meet with the men in the drug and alcohol program. I’m there for the long haul. There is one thing that is guaranteed to keep a person ignorant. Contempt prior to investigation.

  2. I would suggest that you may lack the ability to understand the effectiveness of the images. I, on the other hand, spent four years with these men in that space, and I assure you that the images and letters describe my experience there. I don’t remember claiming to do any more than that.

  3. Please accept my apology for my previous comments. I had a knee jerk response when I read your review last evening. Today I concluded that it is none of my business what you think about me or my work. I hoped to control you from a distance and I obviously can’t and shouldn’t try. Thanks for taking the time to look at my efforts.

  4. I both read the book and looked at the pictures. I also looked for your prose and photos in Aperture #230 (Spring, 2018) “Prison Nation”, but they weren’t there. Tell me, why do you think the University Press of Mississippi published your work?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.