PRINT May 1993


JAMES CASABERE IS A PHOTOGRAPHER in the documentary style. His subject is architecture, but instead of visiting buildings that fascinate him he builds and photographs models of them. His most recent work is about prisons. He has studied the subject thoroughly, and in conversation gives the impression that in his models—with their regular facades, the cell blocks with their enormous grids of windows, the long walls, guard towers, the barbed and razor wire—he sees 200 years of prison buildings and types, and the attitudes both toward incarceration and toward the relationship of architectural form to a building’s purpose that they reflect.

Photographers who work in direct response to a subject—a real prison, say—compress into seconds and fractions of a second the intervals in the esthetic process between experiencing the emotional and intellectual excitement a subject stimulates, recollecting in tranquillity the transfigurations of the subject that such excitements produce in the imagination, and turning these transfigurations into the fixed, clear, accessible, eloquent, beautiful forms of art. In Casebere’s practice the transfigurations occur either long after he experiences the subject or even without his having experienced it at all, but rather having contemplated it through various other forms—texts, images, popular notions. Thus Casebere is able to photograph the prison of the Bastille, which a revolutionary Parisian populace demolished in 1789–90. A few years ago he documented the 19th-century American West; tomorrow he might photograph the boardrooms of 22nd-century corporations, or the lofts of today’s painters. . . . All without leaving his studio in late-20th-century Manhattan.

Because his models have no model people in them, and lie under black starless skies and a light cold as a winter moon’s, and because he uses such featureless materials as foamcore, museum board, plaster, and (for the ground) felt, and paints natural objects like twigs (representing trees) white, Casebere’s imagery has the romantic emptiness, remoteness, melancholy, and ghostliness of ruins. His predecessors, then, include Hubert Robert, W H. Bartlett, William Pars, and others, for the vantage points from which Casebere works—those of the view and architectural rendering—were the stock-in-trade of minor ruin painters and lithographers for at least a century before the advent of photography. Another predecessor is Giorgio de Chirico, whose nearly empty cities come close to resembling models. Casebere is less inventive than de Chirico, and his compositions, with their deliberate limitations of vantage point, are tamer than the vertiginous, phantasmagorical pictures of Piranesi, whose imaginary prisons are the benchmark of the motif. Yet with these new images Casebere has expanded his rhetorical resources, finding a voice at once poetic and fictive. Of the many photographers of recent years who photograph scenes and events they have built and staged, costumed, etc., themselves, he is in this respect rare.

Casebere seems in love with catalogues and lists, making esthetic opportunity out of taxonomy. His mode of address results from the magisterial documentary precision of his view camera’s lens; the formal, almost pedestrian vantage points he takes; his apparent passivity toward everything but the task of giving clear accounts of the models and of the highly nuanced light on their bland, undetailed surfaces; and the very blandness of those surfaces. All of these elements of style and subject combine to give the impression of a self-effacing photographer who exerts enormous self-discipline for the sake of clear renditions that excite the viewer’s senses and curiosity only to frustrate them—renditions in an expository, explanatory idiom that yet fail to explain, reports on things that are incontestably there but are so blank and affectless as to defy the viewer’s engagement with them.

Paradoxically, the overall effect is of a muted lyricism, whose main effects are prettiness—as when a tiny yellow flame leaps from a prison watchtower—and irony. The irony comes from the pictures’ icy pale-blue cast, which operates at once like a minor key, a distancing technique, and, in respect to Casebere, as self-mockery, revealing as it does the paucity, the futility, of photographing monochromatic material in color. Yet the voice seems true and the lyricism a plaintive, honest, wistful expression of a desire to grasp a chimera, to give form to a concept whose very nature is its elusiveness, to attribute meaning to a cipher, to construct an edifice out of cobwebs, to net the reflection of the moon in a pond.

Casebere also seems to avoid the clichés of prison novels and films, and thus to address us from an original imagination. The pictures do not explain, for example, why that fire breaks out in that tower or why a solitary cell-window glows with yellow light late at night, or—in a compound whose cell blocks are boxcars resting on wagon wheels—who flung several striped prison uniforms over washing lines to dry in the bitter cold, thus giving the prison the hasty, provisional quality of a gypsy camp. This is an imagination that fixes on real, common, everyday perceptions of prisons. To the nonprisoner, prisons are exteriors charged with mystery; to prisoners they are numbingly repetitive inner worlds, yet suffused with anticipation and immanence.

Because Casebere’s models are so clearly models, both so insubstantial and so evidently labor intensive, and because his photographic approach expresses nothing of how these models affect him, it is not their presence that one feels has inspired him but, rather, the fact that they can be brought into existence at all. His evident fascination with the models, his alienation from the realities they are based on, and his clear documentary style provoke the viewer to posit a model maker as much a photographer—perhaps a model maker who is not the photographer. And this imaginary maker, a nameless and perhaps solitary character, not necessarily an eccentric but certainly an obsessive type, working long hours in some studio or room, poring over prison literature of all kinds and building these things for unknown and perhaps ultimately unknowable reasons, is this work’s fictional subject and hero.

Ben Lifson is a writer living in Hudson, New York.