Controlling Spaces

Photography Show Defines Boundaries

Posted April 22, 2009 at 3:19pm

The timing of last week’s release of the Bush administration torture memos worked out perfectly for the National Building Museum.

Some of the most striking photographs in the museum’s “Architecture of Authority: Photographs by Richard Ross— exhibit are of spaces at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, where torture made news in 2004, and of the prison at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, where the memos revealed inmates were being waterboarded. But these photos were not necessarily intended to document places that made the front pages of newspapers: Ross wanted viewers to think about the way certain structures are built to manipulate people.

“Ross’ inspiration was post-Sept. 11 U.S. policy,— explained curator Laura Schiavo, who is coordinating the traveling exhibit for the NBM.

The museum, at Fourth and F streets Northwest, unveiled the exhibit Friday. The exhibit’s 44 large photos, chosen from Ross’ book of the same name, depict both obvious and less obvious ways that spaces make decisions for people.

In the obvious examples of American jails abroad, detainees stay in stark rooms with few belongings and little light. One large photograph shows four outdoor “segregation cells— reserved for troublemaking prisoners at Abu Ghraib. Schiavo said American and Iraqi officials debated whether Ross would be allowed to shoot the cells and ultimately decided to allow it in his last five minutes on the base.

In a less obvious example of control, Ross shot a photograph at Montessori Center School in Goleta, Calif. In order to focus toddlers’ attention toward the center, the classroom has a circle drawn on its green carpet. Colorful toys are neatly stacked in wooden cupboards, and large windows overlook a playground. In contrast, the photograph next to it shows another circular-shaped view, but this one allows a prison guard to see jail cells below and above him. Schiavo wanted visitors to make connections to the shapes in the structures.

Another contrast is illustrated with a photograph of an empty but clean hallway at Santa Barbara High School next to a photograph of a hallway that would usher prisoners past holding cells at Guantánamo.

While most of the photographs use little color, one in the exhibit’s back room could grace the front of a postcard, were it not for the fence in the foreground. It shows cows grazing on green grass under brilliant blue skies. The only evidence that the picture was taken at an “inactive nuclear command center— in Anstruther, Scotland, is the barbed wire fence in front of them.

Only two men are photographed in the exhibit, each with his back to the camera so that onlookers share his point of view. The other photographs are empty of people or include them only incidentally at the margins.

All of the photographs in the traveling exhibit were selected from Ross’ book, which features 97 photos and an essay from Harper’s Magazine publisher John MacArthur.

The photographer teaches his craft at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and many of his photographs were shot in California. He has also worked as a photojournalist — one photo in the collection appeared on the cover of Time magazine.

The “Architecture of Authority— show is the first of three exhibits in the National Building Museum’s “Year of the Photograph— series. All three exhibits will overlap for five weeks before the Ross exhibit leaves Aug. 16.

“Storefront Churches: Photographs by Camilo José Vergara— will open June 20. It brings houses of worship in poor urban neighborhoods around the U.S. front and center.

The third exhibit, “Form and Movement: Photographs by Philip Trager,— opens July 11 and is entirely in black and white. While it will show Trager’s architectural photography, it will also display his photographs of modern dancers.