In 1988 Deborah Luster’s mother was murdered by a hired killer. A decade later, still trying to come to grips emotionally with that death, Ms. Luster began taking photographic portraits of inmates, many of them convicted of violent crimes, in state prisons in Louisiana, where she lives.
Review of the Deborah Luster photography exhibit at the Jack Shainman Gallery, by Vince Aletti. January 31, 2011.
Soulful photographer Deborah Luster has made some truly remarkable photographs of men and women in prisons in the US South. In this great interview, which will air today on NPR, she talks about her life and the odd circumstances of her childhood that led to a very personal connection to photography.
Photography can do powerful things. Deborah Luster, for example, tells a story of how one of her photographs reunited a family: A mother, who had spent 15 years in a Louisana prison without seeing her children, requested that Luster take her portrait — thinking that if she sent the image to her children, it might "soften their hearts." It did. A few months later, when Luster followed up, four of the woman's children had come to see her.
Every death, they say, leaves a hole in the community. Loss of life is everywhere in Deborah Luster's New Orleans, but with only the barest hint of community. Perhaps only the emptiness unites them—the fence, the narrow alley, the shuttered house or storefront, the underside of a highway, the thick weeds outside a cemetery. Perhaps the emptiness is the community.
I first encountered Deborah Luster’s work at the Prospect. 1 Biennial in New Orleans in 2008, when a selection of photographs from Tooth for an Eye was displayed at the Old U.S. Mint, a hybrid treasury museum/ contemporary arts venue. In the series of large-scale, circular-format, black-and-white photographs, Luster documents sites in New Orleans where murders have taken place.
New Orleans photographer Deborah Luster searched newspaper archives for the locations of murders. They weren't hard to find in the Crescent City, one of the country's killing capitals.
Ordinarily, she said, the forlorn places don't have any particular effect on her. Occasionally, however, they have a difficult-to-describe power.
Tooth for an Eye: A Chorography of Violence in Orleans Parish is a large series of photos by the photographer Deborah Luster, and now on view at the Jack Shainman Gallery in New York. The images, printed huge or bound into deluxe scrapbooks, record the sites where murders have occurred in New Orleans.
The conceit Deborah Luster arrived at for the circular images in her Tooth for an Eye project serves several metaphoric ends. First, it formally distinguishes her imagery from Joel Sternfeld's 1996 book On This Site: Landscape in Memoriam, depicting places where homicides occurred.