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‘Passion Play’

AMSET hosts ‘Passion Play’ until Nov. 25

Keith Carter, LU Walles Chair of Performing Arts, talks about Deborah Luster’s, “Passion Play” exhibit on display at the Art Museum of Southeast Texas until Nov. 25.  UP photo by Eleanor Skelton
Keith Carter, LU Walles Chair of Performing Arts, talks about Deborah Luster’s, “Passion Play” exhibit on display
at the Art Museum of Southeast Texas until Nov. 25.
UP photo by Eleanor Skelton

The current exhibit at the Art Museum of Southeast Texas leaves more questions than answers. Deborah Luster’s “Passion Play” doesn’t fall neatly into any specific interpretation, photographer Keith Carter said.

“It’s meant to be an experience, a visual question,” Carter, LU Walles Chair of Performing Arts, said. “It engenders conversation, or it should — that’s what she hoped.

“I think the whole thing is courageous and powerful. It’s not about pretty pictures — they’re meant to be thought provoking.”

Carter said he admires Luster’s old school techniques. He discussed her unique approach in The Art Museum of Southeast Texas’ Taste of the Arts Lecture Series, Monday.

Carter first met Luster when she was part of a summer workshop he taught in Maine about 25 years ago. The two have stayed in touch.

“I thought she was extraordinarily talented at the time,” he said. “Her personal history enters into the type of work that she does. She’s very literary and she loves poetry.”

Luster’s photographs use convicts from Angola prison in Louisiana and casts them in the roles of the Biblical story.

Luster became friends with an assistant warden in the Angola prison during her earlier project — a book titled “One Big Self,” which featured silver gelatin portraits of Louisiana prisoners compiled between 1998 and 2002, Carter said. The warden called Luster after seeing a prisoner’s Passion Play in Scotland. She was planning to bring it back to Louisiana and invited Luster to photograph it.

The photographs in “Passion Play” draw on a historical tradition, Carter said. Like “One Big Self,” the prints are silver gelatin scanned from two-and-a-quarter-inch film, not digitally photographed.

“The portraits are in the tradition of 19th century, sitting formally, staring unsmilingly at a camera,” Carter said. “The fact that they’re large like that forces you to scrutinize them eye to eye, pay attention to every square inch of the portraits.”

While portrait photographers usually talk with their subjects to engage them while shooting, Carter said Luster didn’t talk to the inmates. She told them to just be and captured them as they are.

“(Luster’s) very empathetic,” he said. “She has a social conscience. It’s perfect work for her. In her hands, it becomes like a small parable full of implied narratives rather than concrete information.

“It’s always in the eyes. You can’t help but look at their eyes.”

But “Passion Play” isn’t just the larger than life portraits, which Carter said are about 60-inches tall. It’s also a black and white film.

“It’s 35-millimeter film in a dark room,” Carter said. “It’s about 20-minutes long. You sit on wooden backless benches made by prisoners.”

Luster’s choice of black and white is intentional. Carter said Luster thinks of color as a distraction from the picture’s message.

“She does not want the seduction of color changing perspective on what you see,” he said. “It’s startling, particularly I assume for the younger generation.”

The film is brutally sharp, Carter said.

“Her inspiration for that was some Bolex camera films that Andy Warhol made in the 60s,” Carter said. “He took an idea from a New York police pamphlet called ‘Thirteen Most Wanted Men’ — like mug shots, but done on film. She was very affected by that film and she’s taken that idea.”

Luster set up a makeshift studio at the Angola prison in the rodeo yard, using animal stalls and all-natural light for the portraits and the film, Carter said.

“They’ve got over 5,000 inmates,” he said. “They have some arcane laws in Louisiana, 4,000 have been sentenced to life out of over 5,300 inmates — that’s probably one of the reasons she was drawn to it.

“Many of those prisoners were put there for unduly long sentences that wouldn’t happen anywhere else. Whether or not it was because they were black, that’s not my area of expertise — but you can read between the lines.”

Luster became obsessed with the effects of violence on society after her mother’s unsolved murder, which inspired much of her art, Carter said. Her mother was shot five times in the head by a hit-man on April 1, 1988. Luster took up photography as a way of dealing with the trauma. At first, her work was mostly southern vernacular black and white photographs, Carter said. But, then, she grew interested in crime and crime motifs.

“That’s when her work, in my view, began to mature,” he said.

Some of the men Luster photographed had been incarcerated for more than 40 years, Carter said. Mirrors aren’t allowed in prisons since broken glass can be turned into a shiv, so they hadn’t seen their own reflections in all that time.

“Some of them were just so startled (to see) how they’d aged,” he said. “They’d gone in as a young person and not been able to see really what they’d looked like.”

While “Passion Play” prompts the viewer to ask sociological questions about incarceration and racism, Carter said he came away with other thoughts.

“The only question I was really interested in was how they were cast, who chose them?” he said. “Is there an audition? Is there some back story to who plays Jesus, who plays Mary, how did all that evolve?

“The other thing that was poignant to me was those costumes were so bad that it looked like school children had made them. I thought the whole thing was like a folk parable in a terrible sort of dark way, and you hoped that there would be redemption at the end.”

Carter said he also wondered how playing those roles affected the actors individually.

“If you were watching a movie, they’d have gone to everyone in the play and shown how it had changed them,” he said. “Did that change them in any way or was it just a respite from the tedium of prison work?”

Carter said that Luster’s project probably couldn’t be done again due to changing rules for media and fear of lawsuits.

“She told me that she felt pretty sure that even today that would all be off limits and you couldn’t do it again,” he said.

“Deborah Luster: Passion Play” is on display until Nov. 25. AMSET is located at 500 Main St. in downtown Beaumont. For more information, visit www.amset.org.

Story by Eleanor Skelton, UP contributor

Category: News