Steve Davis's Captured Youth at James Harris Gallery is 14 large-format digital photographs of incarcerated teens, shot between 1997 and 2005 in Washington State youth detention facilities. Six of the photographs are portraits of young men identified by first name only. The others show named and unnamed subjects in the halls and chambers of the facilities. Although the architecture ultimately provides the clues necessary to identify the subjects as juvenile offenders, Davis writes in an artist statement, "It is these faces that I've asked to do the talking." His tightly cropped portraits, all pimples and pores, are like mug shots or the tiny, square photographs made for ID badges; all three rely on the popular convention that the face is the nucleus of identity. But unlike the more utilitarian versions of the cropped, frontal portrait, Davis's images are slick, manipulated-for-pleasing compositions in high contrast and in beautiful color.
Davis began working with incarcerated youth as an artist in residence at the Maple Lane School, one of three maximum-security juvenile facilities in Washington, where he assisted teens in using photography to document imprisonment. His portraits are a more technically adept version of this community-service project (with the exception of a composition showing two half-dressed young men in ankle and wrist chains standing before a black background, which is so literal that at first I took it for student work). The work, despite the artist's good intentions, ranges from inadequate to problematic.
Davis has his cards on the table. He condemns these places, in another artist statement, as "the most inhumane living environment I ever witnessed." His treatment of the residential cells, with their compositionally appealing white fixtures, clean surfaces, and modern lines, defies this observation. The spaces look instead like a medieval cloister, serene and divinely lit, their inhabitants like glassy-eyed angels. They are the opposite of the hellish squats and alleyways of Weegee's criminals.
The crimes are the reason for these photographs, but they are deferred. All we know is that these are maximum-security juvenile holding centers. Whether to reveal the crimes is a complex decision (possibly a legal one). On the one hand, listing them would be reductive, sensationalistic, and judgmental. On the other hand, not listing them is evasive. Davis has, by his choice of assignment, put himself in a bind that his photographs don't acknowledge.
Despite Davis's technical manipulations—an extreme range of focus, the toying with natural light, and the overlay of his graphical sensibility—the teens mitigate his ability to truly author their photographs. Portrait subjects are notoriously self-conscious, active participants in the crafting of their images, either through the use of socially coded props or by twisting their features into phony expressions.
This tendency is greater in teens and even more so in Davis's disenfranchised teens, for whom posturing can be a means of survival.
The self-selecting of mood or demeanor is the means by which the subjects—and ultimately the photographs—assert themselves. Davis shapes the light and composition, but plays no real role in this process. His process, and his comments, present him as a documentarian in the traditional sense, not a participant in exchanges that result in photographs. To what end? Glimpsing the flat surfaces of life in juvenile detention is not elucidating, and threatens to be an act of objectification. If anything, these images emphasize a lack of connection between viewer and subject.
The photograph that acknowledges that lack, and even mourns it, is the one visible from the street, first encountered upon entering the gallery. Its title is 10, 11, 12, 13 & 14. A crisp 40 by 50 inches, the image presents a row of numbered, unevenly painted doors. Faces peer through four of the small windows, each of which is marked with a tangle of angry scratches. These casements were installed for the observation of the teens by the facility staff, not for the residents' outward gazing, and as such, this group portrait is an apt opening point into the show. Meeting our eyes through the doors, the young offenders, from a position of being looked at, are looking back.
View another photograph of this installation.