REVIEW: Photography Exhibition: Images of Incarceration


A little bit haunting, a whole lot confusing, maybe threatening. These pictures gave me the feeling of a kid from the Peanuts gang; kept from some secret like the unintelligible monotone of the adults’ voices. It was something special to be let in at all, but the opacity of the images’ meaning both disturbed and delighted me. The lighting–heavy flash going off in naturally-lit or dark indoor environments–put me back in time a bit. The images were reminiscent of the 1990s with their coldly fashionable earth tones: grays, browns, tans, beige.

The ones with captions seemed like they could have had a clearer intent. We have location and the number of inmates, but that’s about it in terms of context. I needed more from the literature if the artists wanted to include it at all. Mere numbers fail us in giving meaning to most things; I need more description of living conditions, maybe a hint at artifacts of the imprisoned life, the possessions they leave behind at the gate, art made by inmates, some little picture of influence they have on their surroundings and the lives of others.

It was interesting that all the photos surrounding correctional facilities were taken from the outside (necessitated by strict no-photo policies, undoubtedly), often not including the buildings at all, but focusing on the surrounding landscape. Most of the others–bail bond shops, police gun shows–were taken from inside. Are we meant to feel a kinship with the law, or just deny ourselves a false connection with the incarcerated? To be outside is both a privilege and a curse: it grants us our continuing freedom while suffocating the possibility of real understanding.

Using such majestic landscapes was a unique artistic choice for me. Many incorporated deeply vibrant colors in the sky and greenery; there was a lot of sunshine and a calming, natural glow to them. Several could have been featured on a ritzy resort’s website. They’ve taken away the images of concrete blocks and barbed wire I would normally associate with prison and replaced them with a richer depiction. “There is beauty here!” they shout. There is no longer the usual isolation of a building from the land on which it sits; instead it becomes a part of something more complete. Exactly what that is, I’m not quite sure. There is no reference to the incarcerated housed within the walls we cannot see from our vantage point, save for a mention of how many there are. Personalization is negligible, nothing more than the city and state printed below the picture. If we are not meant to focus our thought on the prisoners, what else are we supposed to consider? Or is their absence itself the point? Thus the argument is unclear. I will definitely be going to the artist talks coming up, and I suggest you all do the same after perusing the gallery. Steph Foster will give an artist talk on Friday March 27, at 4:45 PM, and Ashley Hunt will give an artist talk on Tuesday March 31, at 4:30 PM.


REVIEW: Friday Night’s Alright for Reading

Elton John may prefer Saturdays, but the Residential College calls dibs on Friday. Yesterday, storytellers, logophiles, and those who just really love homemade brownies gathered in East Quad’s Benzinger Library for a live reading event hosted by Midwestern Gothic, a literary journal based in Ann Arbor. Established in Spring 2011 by Rob James Russell and Jeff Pfaller, the publication sets out to debunk the common perception that the Midwest is simply a sweet, innocent, ‘flyover’ region. We all know that this myth is far from the truth.

In order to showcase the good, the bad, and the ugly of the Midwest, Midwestern Gothic, which last year hosted a Midwestern literary festival in East Quad’s concourse, returned to the Residential College’s home for a live reading by Midwestern writers themselves. Contributors included U of M professor Julie Babcock; Ann Arbor News crime reporter John Counts; RC Creative Writing Professor Laura Thomas; Jared Yates Sexton, a Midwestern-turned-Georgia Southern University professor; and Rob James Russell, one half of Midwestern Gothic‘s team. Each read short excerpts of their own work that highlighted both the unusual and the everyday of Midwestern life.

John Counts kicked off the event with his piece found in Midwestern Gothic’s Summer Issue 14, a unique piece entitled “The Skull House,” that explores a girl’s unusual habit of collecting animal skulls. It ponders the existence of “roadside attractions” and the exploitation of individual lifestyles and quirks. His visceral language of “boiling the animal flesh” and the processes of cleaning the skulls was scientific to the bone, and yet made me twinge uncomfortably in my seat. A good storyteller, in my opinion, can utilize his/her words in such a way to make you squeamish at one moment, full of remorse the next, and lift you up with hope. Counts fits the category perfectly.

Next, Laura Thomas claimed that she “normally doesn’t steal story ideas from the newspaper headlines.” But one story from a year or two ago was stuck in her head, and she had to write a story about it. Her story, printed in Midwestern Gothic’s latest Issue 15, is called “Sole Suspect.” The plot follows a father whose daughter has been missing for 20 years, and he is the only one to have seen her the night she went missing. The mystery/crime short story, Thomas explained, was based on a story in South Dakota, where two girls, who had been missing for 20 years, were discovered in their submerged car after driving off a bridge. I was particularly interested in hearing Thomas read, as I have taken Creative Writing classes with her, and was curious if she uses her own helpful advice in her work. I was very satisfied to know that she loves a good adverb and extended metaphor as much as I do. Although she only read an excerpt of the short story, it was beautifully constructed and makes me want to read the rest!

Rob Russell followed up with a story from his forthcoming collection about “relationship, love, family and all that jazz.” His smart and nostalgic piece, “Rough and Tumble Sorts,” examined family dynamics in a small-rural Missouri setting, while walking his audience back in time with the memory of AOL chatrooms. “But how do you know that who you’re talking to is really the person you’re talking to?” one character asks, skeptically. “Why wouldn’t they be?” the other responds. “I don’t know.” (Oh, the innocence of the ’90’s.)  Preceding his reading, Russell played the clamor of the AOL Dial-Up sound from his iPhone in the ultimate visual of clashing decades, “in case you young’ins in the audience have never heard it before.”

Julie Babcock, whose poetry collection “Autoplay” is forthcoming this month from MG Press, read her lyrical snapshots of youthfulness and Ohio-love. Each were beautiful on the surface, but their real beauty comes when you peel up the outer layer and delve into the “deeper meaning.” What I love about live readings is that you get to hear the story that inspired the author/poet to write that particular piece. Instead of just reading a poem out of context, we understand how Babcock came to title this one “Astronaut, Ohio” and that one “Pregnant Chad” and suddenly, the seams of the story come together a bit more.

Likewise, Jared Yates Sexton prefaced his reading with an in-depth story about his cat who drinks his water so vigorously that he instantly gets sick afterwards. Although irrelevant to his short story, it somehow drew me closer to the reading, like I shared this quirky piece of knowledge that only “insiders” would know about the author. Also, the short story that Sexton read would be a totally different piece if not read aloud by Sexton himself. The story was based on a true event with people from Sexton’s past. Therefore, with much dialogue, only Sexton could imitate the exact inflections of the character’s voice, pairing the words with their corresponding gestures that were not written in the story.

Just like a CD cannot do justice to the energy and spirit of a live performance, nor can reading a story in private provide the same experience as hearing the story as the author intended. I recommend to keep an eye and an ear out for author readings. If nothing else, you’ll probably hear a good cat story or two.

For more information on Midwestern Gothic, check out their website:

PREVIEW: Friday Night’s Alright for Reading

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Have you ever been in a writing class, received your red-marked paper back with critiques and underlines and “more sexual tension” here and “suspend reader disbelief” there, and wondered, “Gee, does my teacher practice what he/she preaches in his/her own writing?” Here’s your chance to find out!

What: A literary reading by five local authors, hosted by local publication, Midwestern Gothic

Who: Contributors include U-M English lecturer Julie Babcock, Ann Arbor News crime reporter John Counts, local authors Robert James Russell and Jared Yates Sexton, and the RC’s Laura Thomas.

When: Friday, November 7 at 5 pm

Where: Benzinger Library, East Quad

How Much?: Absolutely free!

To keep up on other creative writerly events in East Quad and around town, check out