Tuesday, June 07, 2011

Deborah Luster - One Big Self: Prisoners of Louisiana

I'm a photo freak. A black and white enthusiast. I have stacks and shelves of books that feature photos.

The topics vary. The first one I remember "collecting" -- The Family of Man compiled by Edward Steichen -- is legendary, though I didn't realize it at the time. Decades later, the photo of an indigenous South American flute player that appears on the cover of that book is the wallpaper on my computer at work.

Since that first one, I've added enough such books to my collection as to cause myself to wonder on occasion what I'm thinking. I rarely look at them after the first long, slow time through. Yet I'm a veritable sucker when I see one that reaches out and grabs me. In fact, I've begun to wonder what my poor daughter is going to do with them all when I move on. Some old ladies collect cats or balls of rubber bands. I'm apparently accumulating art works and photo books.

Anyway, yesterday, I came across my next acquisition, I'm sure. It's pricy, but I really must have it and in a minute, you'll understand why.

The photographer is Deborah Luster and the book is entitled One Big Self: Prisoners of Louisiana. Poet C.D. Wright adds a running commentary throughout and the book is available for $150 from Twin Palms Publishers. Or if you're a glutton for punishment, Amazon.com offers it for nearly three times that.

When her mother was murdered 25 years ago, Luster turned to photography -- a passion her mother enjoyed -- in an effort to deal with her shock and pain. As her hobby became her profession and she was hired to take photos highlighting the life and culture of northern Louisiana, where she still lives, she noticed the mini-prisons that formulate the base for the economy in many of those communities. One thing led to another and One Big Self was the result.

Luster shoots with a dark eye. Her latest project, for example, is constituted of photos of places in New Orleans where people have been murdered or bodies found. But One Big Self, while deeply disturbing on multiple levels, pierces the viewer's soul and deposits therein a conscious awareness of the life staring out of each image, radiating humanity. Luster's photos drag the weight of her mother's murder like Jacob Marley's chains scraping across the floor in Scrooge's bedroom. Yet she finds and presents in the faces of her prisoner subjects the anguish she herself struggled with as a youth coming to grips with her own private nightmare. And it is that connection -- so inexplicable, so undeniable -- that makes the book worth whatever they want to charge for it.

Luster's work appears all over the internet in blog posts and on various gallery sites. She's been covered by National Public Radio and The New York Times. Yet I somehow hadn't run across her until yesterday and, as sobering as a contact with her work is, I am beyond glad I did.

Trying to be artful in presenting a few of her prisoner photos and a YouTube video by way of introduction is like trying to frame a sledgehammer. I'll just go ahead and post them. Then, looking toward Monroe, I'll send a small Namaste to one who has turned her suffering into a lens through which the rest of us can not only better see her and her beautiful, beautiful subjects, but better see ourselves, as well.


Anonymous said...

This looks amazing!

Changeseeker said...

Doesn't it? I can hardly wait to see the whole thing. As I recall, she took more than a thousand portraits.