2014 Winners - Winner: Amy Elkins
Amy Elkins submitted two portfolios of work for the Aperture Portfolio Prize, each distinct in form and content but both stemming from her explorations of the issues surrounding capital punishment and her participation in letter exchanges with inmates serving death-row sentences.
The first, Parting Words, presents a series of black-and-white mug shots or portraits of men and women who have been executed. Each image has been constructed via the repetition of that prisoner’s final words. The effect is to both abstract and formalize the features of the individual, as well as render their fate chillingly concrete. These briefest of statements resonate with the micro-narratives of entire lives, tragic crimes, and opportunities and potential squandered. “I put her remains in the Trinity River,” reads one, “Tonight I dance on streets of gold. Let those without sin cast the first stone”; “Real or imagined. All marked, erased”; “I will wait for you.” The entire series contains over five hundred selected portraits, including those reading, “This offender declined to make a last statement,” or “None.”
The formal framework that Elkins has adopted underscores the depersonalization of incarceration and the systems sustaining capital punishment. It also heightens the sense of terrifying yet relatable banality contained within these images, an eerie recognition and identification with the human form evoked from otherwise raw, impersonal images of individuals who found themselves on the furthest ends of the spectrum of human feeling.
Her second series, Black is the Day, Black is the Night, expands her exploration of these topics. Elkins has exchanged letters with prisoners on death row, and she intersperses those letters with images created in an effort to capture the interior landscapes evoked in these correspondences: imagined seascapes; recreations of items described by prisoners; a prison lunch tray purchased on eBay. She creates color portraits of inmates by pixelating and obscuring their faces according to the amount of time each individual has been locked away. As viewers, we are invited to puzzle over an assortment of clues, including reenactments, exhibits submitted for our considerations, partial evidence, and statements both leading and misleading. The work is elegiac and provocative, asking the viewer to engage above and beyond a simple, cursory viewing of these images.
In the months since the Aperture Portfolio Prize short list was finalized and announced, Elkins’s work has started to gain traction in the blogosphere. Pete Brook wrote about Elkins for the Huffington Post and interviewed the artist for his blog Prison Photography. Her work is also included in Cast, an exhibition at the Philadelphia Photo Arts Center on view until May 17, 2014.
—Lesley A. Martin
1. Amy Elkins, 26/44 (Not the Man I Once Was), 2011. Portrait of a man twenty-six years into his death row sentence, where the ratio of years spent in prison to years alive determined the level of image loss.
2. Amy Elkins, Four Years Out of a Death Row Sentence (Ocean), 2011. A pen pal twenty-six years into his sentence in a landlocked prison described an early childhood memory that haunted him, of walking further and further into the ocean during low tide until the sudden depth and darkness before him overcame him with fear. This image was constructed out of appropriated images and composited to account for the amount of years spent in prison.
3. Amy Elkins, Prison Food Tray Acquired From eBay, 2009
4. Amy Elkins, David Gibbs, Execution #230, Age 39, 2014
5. Amy Elkins, David Goff, Execution #246, Age 31, 2014
6. Amy Elkins, Allen Janecka, Execution #309, Age 53, 2014
7. Amy Elkins, Handmade Jump Rope (Torn and Braided Bedsheet), 2011. As described by a man who spent fifteen years in solitary confinement on death row before being executed in March 2012. Mississippi State Penitentiary.
8. Amy Elkins, Eleven Years Out of a Death Row Sentence (River), 2011. A pen pal serving a death sentence described being baptized several years ago. The father had to reach through the bars to touch him. Even with such restrictions, he remembers the touch as electric. Despite the act of the baptism, he feared it wasn’t good enough to save him. He longed to do a full-submersion baptism in a river, like Jesus had. This image was constructed out of his description of the river he wished to be baptized in, using appropriated images which were then composited to account for the amount of years spent in prison.
9. Amy Elkins, Return to Sender—“Deceased”, 2012. Attempted last letter returned from Mississippi State Penitentiary.
10. Amy Elkins, Jason Massey, Execution #245, Age 28, 2014
11. Amy Elkins, Samuel Hawkins, Execution #92, Age 52, 2014
12. Amy Elkins, Milton Mathis, Execution #470, Age 32, 2014
13. Amy Elkins, Karla Tucker, Execution #145, Age 38, 2014
14. Amy Elkins, “As Each Hour Ticked Away”, 2010. Essay written in 2010 by a man on death row in Mississippi, describing a fellow inmate’s execution. Two years later his execution also took place, despite the many appeals he had filed in attempts to save his life.
15. Amy Elkins, Nineteen Years Out of a Life Sentence (Sky), 2011. A pen pal serving a life sentence without the possibility of parole in a supermax prison (in solitary) described being able to see the sky through a metal grated skylight in the small concrete exercise area he was permitted to be in alone for one hour a day. The additional twenty-three hours were spent in isolation. This image was constructed out of his description of the open sky he wished to see, using appropriated images which were then composited to account for the amount of years spent in prison.
Amy Elkins (born in Venice, California, 1979) is a photographer currently based in Greater Los Angeles. She received her BFA in photography from the School of Visual Arts in New York. Elkins has been exhibited both nationally and internationally, including at Kunsthalle Wien in Vienna; Carnegie Art Museum, California; Minneapolis Institute of Arts; North Carolina Museum of Art; Light Work Gallery in Syracuse, New York; and Yancey Richardson Gallery in New York, among many others. Her work has been published in the New York Times Magazine, Eyemazing, PDN, Harper’s, NY Arts, Conveyor, and Contact Sheet, among others. Exhibition catalogs include The Portrait. Photography as a Stage: From Robert Mapplethorpe to Nan Goldin, which coincided with an exhibition at Kunsthalle Wien curated by Peter Weiermair; and The Sports Show: Athletics as Image and Spectacle, which coincided with an exhibition at Minneapolis Institute of Arts curated by David Little. Elkins has been an artist-in-residence at Light Work in Syracuse in 2011 and at Villa Waldberta in Munich in 2012. In 2008, Elkins and Cara Phillips cofounded wipnyc.org, a platform for showcasing both established and emerging women in photography. Elkins is represented by Yancey Richardson Gallery, New York.