New Show at SF Camerawork Shoots for Social Impact

by Sura Wood

Powerful exhibition at SF Camerawork focuses on social change.

“Not all prisons have bars and walls.” That statement, inscribed on an introductory panel at a new SF Camerawork exhibition, introduces a powerful body of work by photojournalist Brian L. Frank about juvenile offenders caught in a cycle of prison and a life on the outside for which they’re ill-prepared. Frank is one of three accomplished, social issue photographers awarded fellowships by CatchLight, a Bay Area-based nonprofit dedicated to the medium and its ability to promote social change; this exhibition, “Focal Points,” is the organization’s first.

“We look for excellence in photography…and collaborative leaders who can engage and excite an audience and extend the impact of their work,” explains CatchLight founder and executive director Nancy Richards Farese. Some of that creative work comes out of personal experience. Frank, whose photo essays have been published in The Wall Street Journal, The New Yorker and Rolling Stone, was in and out of juvenile facilities from the age of 14 for theft and violent crime but turned himself around by the time he hit 20. A portion of his current project, “Out of Bounds: Coming of Age in ‘Gang Territory,’” on view here, consists of a group of moving color images, accompanied by descriptive captions, that examine criminalizing of minority youth and both the brotherhood and loneliness of teenage inmates at Pine Grove, a boys’ prison camp located in the wooded foothills of Lake Tahoe. Most of those incarcerated there come from the “gang corridors” of the Central Valley and have been doing time in Youth Authority facilities since their early teens. Frank’s troubled adolescence and familiarity with incarceration enabled him to bond with his subjects and earn their trust. “It was like looking at a younger me,” he recalls. “Right away, they gave me unfettered access to their lives, which isn’t usually what happens.” 

Over the course of a year, Frank made several visits to Pine Grove. “The boys liked being photographed but they wanted to look tough,” he says. “I waited to get past the macho posturing for the more tender moments.” Frank caught one such moment in which several inmates, heads bowed and arms around one another, are praying together in a doorway. In another, which he shot through a glass window, he captured a boy spending precious minutes talking to his girlfriend on the camp’s pay phone, the only line inmates have to the outside world. Meanwhile, another boy, illuminated by piercingly bright floodlights, cuts a solitary figure as he walks off a football field on a rainy night after a game. “They’re at a tipping point,” Frank says of the inmates. “Pine Grove is the last-chance camp to break the cycle. Most of them will never get out of the justice system.”

For her series “Beckon Us from Home,” New York-based documentary photographer Sarah Blesener journeyed to “patriot camps” and clubs across the country to photograph some of the 400,000 children receiving a mix of religious and military-style instruction in what she calls the “New Americanism.” “Always remember, you are soldiers of God,” intoned one camp director in a speech, quoted by Blesener on an exhibition panel. “And nobody in the entire history of the world has ever been as free as you are right now.” A grim-looking 11-year-old cadet in a “Young Marines” club in Pennsylvania is captured standing ramrod straight, dressed in a camouflage uniform, while in Utah, students as young as six sit on the floor with eyes closed, memorizing the Declaration of Independence by putting it into song. But the images that were most meaningful to Blesener were taken of children when they were out of uniform. She caught a quieter, more carefree side of adolescence in a picture, shot from above, of three siblings—two brothers and a sister—lying on the grass gazing up at the sky, their arms intertwined, on a hot summer afternoon.

“There was something magical about the bright sun, the dusty North Dakota oil field roads kicking dirt on my lens, the summer flowers on their skin and the laughter,” she recalls. The camps and regimented training represent the opposite of intense social media engagement and the adolescent quest for individuality. “A lot of the students expressed relief at being told what to wear, how to act, following orders and learning how to craft a group identity versus their own,” she says. “It offered an escape… that relieved their anxiety.”

In “Lines and Lineage,” Tomas van Houtryve, an artist, writer and photographer living in Paris, explores a novel historical perspective of the original U.S.- Mexican border, which, before 1848, was located 700 miles farther north than it is today. He imagines how the area, where Spanish missionaries and colonists started settling in 1598, and which was home to indigenous peoples, might have appeared under the Mexican administration, a period from 1839, the year photography was invented, to 1848, when the U.S. attacked Mexico and seized half the country’s land.

“The photographic record of the West, which includes the Gold Rush, cowboys, covered wagons and the arrival of the railroad, inspired the making of Western movies,” notes van Houtryve. “An entire mythology built from that record…continues to inform our stereotypes and perceptions to this day. My project asks how that myth would have changed had there been an equally strong photographic record of the Mexican-ruled era.” 

Using wet plate-glass negatives and a 19th-century wooden camera, van Houtryve took black and white images, which are displayed in a two-panel, diptych format. Each depicts a landscape along the pre-1848 border on one side and a formal close-up portrait of a descendant of early inhabitants of the West on the other. His techniques, which include deliberately leaving behind streaks, scratches and other detritus from the chemical process, give his images an antiqued, haunted quality. The weathered face of a ruddy, gray-bearded man in a straw hat, for example, is paired with the site of the San Geronimo church massacre, a scene of burned-out ruins and a cemetery littered with remnants of humble wooden crosses; a strong-featured, dark-skinned young man wearing a headband appears opposite a creased photograph of a snow-covered Medicine Bow Peak.
The rest is left to the imagination.

Along with work by the Fellows, the exhibition features the Everyday Bay Area Community Wall, where visitors are invited to submit photos that reflect their daily lives. During a weekly hands-on session, the public can print their submissions and add them to an evolving portrait of the community.

Through June 30

SF Camerawork

1011 Market St., San Francisco

(415) 487-1011