For a combination of a heartbreaking backstory and a catalog of equally heartbreaking work, you can't do much better than Deborah Luster. She was the final artist to participate in this year's Visiting Artists Series at Watkins, and about halfway through her lecture last night she joked with the audience about the emotional tenor of her work, asking if we were depressed yet. Then she said her next project would be something lighthearted, like a documentation of the cats of Ireland. Somehow, I doubt it. She's just too good at making the macabre interesting.
She started the lecture with a few family photographs, letting the audience into her family a little before telling us that in 1988 her mother was murdered in her bed by a contract killer. That unforgettable detail struck the tone for Luster's entire body of work, one that was filled with sadness but an underlying need to see the humanity in everyone — even convicted felons.
Her project One Big Self documented inmates in a Louisiana prison. She also spoke about some earlier works, and a later series called Tooth for an Eye. Below, I've compiled a few of the stories she shared about her photographs.
One of Luster's early photographs is of a man who had lost an ear. She said he was an alcoholic and a roofer — not the best vocation for a heavy drinker, to be sure — and she'd heard about him from several locals who were familiar with her and her love for oddity. She got in touch with him and asked him about his prosthetic ear. "Oh Lord," he said. "I'm not vain anymore, so I hardly wear that thing." He took her to his pickup truck and opened the glove compartment. About 30 prosthetic ears tumbled out.
Luster said that when she showed this man his photograph, he commented, "Damn, I done got old." She considered that all the prison mirrors are security mirrors that are made of stainless steel. A lot of the inmates who had come in as young men weren't entirely sure what they looked like after all this time, and Luster's portraits were the closest they'd come to really seeing themselves in years.
The inmates chose how they wanted to be photographed, and a lot of them ended up showing off their tattoos. Luster, a smallish white woman with a quiet voice and slight Southern accent, seemed to revel in telling the audience that this man's tattoo said "Real men eat pussy."
The prison librarian with his bookshelf on wheels. The prisoners weren't immediately enamored with the idea of a library, and would throw the books at this man whenever he would come around. Eventually he convinced them that he was on their side, and that reading would help their time go by faster. Luster asked what books were the most popular on the inside, and this man immediately responded, "They love Danielle Steele. They read Danielle Steele and they cry all afternoon." That's a detail you can only get from such close, careful interaction with the inmates.