Having recently submitted a best of list to this very blog, I also devoured all the other contributions, in the hope of finding any of those hidden gems I may have missed during the year.
One such title was a self published project from American artist Amy Elkins. Released only a month or so back, Black Is The Day, Black Is The Night is a study of the long term effects of incarceration and solitary confinement on death row inmates in the US prison system. It is a thought provoking subject to say the least, and unlike a number of projects that have appeared over the last few years, and embraced a procedural or forensic approach (the best amongst them in my opinion being A Criminal Investigation, Redheaded Peckerwood and the recent Sugar Paper Theories) this study throws a warmth and personal connection into the mix and asks you to get to know these men. It presents a human side and makes you think about the prisoners as individuals. To wonder just how endless years spent in a tiny room by themselves with only thoughts and memories for company can change a person, and even whether in some instances, maybe…just maybe their situation should be re evaluated.
This human connection recalls an altogether different approach, and brings BITD into line with the likes of Anne de Gelas’ masterful L’Amoureuse, Laila Abril’s The Epilogue, or even Koi Takiguchi’s Sou, and whilst these have nothing to do with, or have any connection to, crime or incarceration, they all present a narrative dominated by loss and grief. All powerful, intensely personal, and completely heart breaking. Whether intentional or not, to fuse these two styles without recourse to melodrama, or sentimentality is a fantastic achievement and one which is to be congratulated.
The design of the book itself is a truly elegant triumph. The binding, the choice of paper, the open spine. All beautifully considered touches which give the book a tactile hand made feel. Some of my favourite books from the last year or two have come from Japan’s Reminders Project. Books like Red String, Small Good Lie, The Path of Million Pens and Lulu ( to mention just a few) have made us re think what a book can be, how we interact with them, and the feelings that they can induce. This marriage of the artists work with the book as an object, places “Black Is The Day…” firmly in the same league. A stimulating thing of beauty to be treasured.
The last word has to go – of course – to the photography. Images of objects that pertain to each individual’s personal story, along with treated photographs of both person and place. These impressionistic landscapes, blurring memory, and suggesting to the viewer how the subjects now recall a scene that at some point in that past could have been described down to the last blade of grass. Like the portraits, hazy, featureless, unrecognizable. Shadows of an earlier life. Beautiful images, flooded with sadness and distorted by the passing of time.
Whether all, some, or even any of these men are deserving of our sympathy will be down to each individuals interpretation of the information presented. This book is not a legal document, or even a petition. However, it would be wonderful to think, that if even just one man is no longer the person he was when he was incarcerated, then Elkins could have produced more than a piece of art.
That man may well still spend the rest of his life behind bars, but she would, at least, have helped to give him back his sky.
Robin Titchener is a keen, bordering on fanatical photobook collector of thirty years.