In this extraordinary exhibition, New York artist and photographer Arne Svenson presents some two dozen portraits of turn-of-the-century prisoners, which the artist developed from found negatives. Each image (about one to two feet) is a diptych mug-shot (full face and profile), with the criminal's name and crime etched into the emulsion and visible above the subject's head. The crimes range from petty larceny to murder. Various ages, races and both sexes are included, although only one female convict, Charlotte Hayes, appears in the show.
Following closely on the heels of his witty black-and-white Las Vegas series -- which also made the "Top Ten" list last spring -- this group of works was developed from old glass negatives that Svenson found rotting away in the musty warehouse of an antiques dealer in Petaluma, Ca. The artist acquired nearly 1,500 negatives and, with the help of his sister Kristina, cleaned and restored many of them. After intensive research in the libraries and courthouse archives of the Sacramento Valley area, Svenson discovered that the photos were taken to chronicle municipal felons during 1900-1908 by Clara Smith, a photographer under contract of the town of Marysville, Ca. Svenson also uncovered fairly extensive material describing the convicts' crimes.
Appropriation art has always been of little interest to me, but Svenson's project brings up some fascinating issues regarding the important role of photography as an archival tool. Not only has he brought to light Smith's brilliant portraiture, with its powerful sense of light and shade, but his presentation of them -- enlarged and uniformly arranged, makes them seem surprisingly of our own time. One realizes that without Svenson, this fascinating piece of American history may have been lost forever. However, in changing the work's context, the artist holds up a mirror to the present as well as to the past.
The exhibition coincides with the publication of Svenson's Prisoners, a book about the genesis of the project.
Arne Svenson at Julie Saul, 560 Broadway, Ste. 500, NY NY 10012 (Jan. 8-Feb. 21, 1998).