Book Reviews / Compte Rendus de Livres - Jackson, Bruce. 2009. Pictures from a Drawer: Prison and the Art of Portraiture. -

Jackson, Bruce. 2009. Pictures from a Drawer: Prison and the Art of Portraiture

Richard Mackinnon
Cape Breton University

Review of Jackson, Bruce. 2009. Pictures from a Drawer: Prison and the Art of Portraiture. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.
Pp. 204, black and white illustrations, soft cover ISBN: 978-1-59213-949-1, $34.95.

1 Bruce Jackson has spent a lifetime studying prisoners and their culture through photography, film and ethnography. He has also helped train a generation of folklorists, anthropologists and other social scientists in the art of gathering data and documenting culture through his body of scholarly work, including his influential book, Fieldwork.

2 Jackson’s latest work, Pictures from a Drawer is a remarkable study of a collection of photographs of male and female prisoners serving time at the Cummins prison in Arkansas. The images, for the most part, prisoner identification photographs, were taken over a twenty-five year period by photographers who are now unknown. As Jackson says, “all the portraits in the central section of the book were made (in a few cases adapted) to be part of a prison dossier, commonly called a “jacket” (9). Jackson stumbled upon these photographs on one of his regular research trips to Cummins. On that visit, the convict who was then taking the identification photographs invited Jackson to take what he wanted from a drawer that contained hundreds of small, loose prisoner photographs. Being duplicates of images that were already in prisoners’ files, Jackson availed himself of the offer and took what he could at the time. As he says, “I planned on coming back later in that visit to grab the rest of the photographs, but I got busy with other things and didn’t get to it. No matter, I thought. I’ll get to it next time. But there was to be no next time: I was never inside Cummins prison again” (19). What he managed to acquire, however, on that visit to Cummins constitutes the bulk of this book: 121 portraits of men and women inmates taken between 1915 and 1940.

3 Along with the moving portraits of prisoners whose eyes speak volumes of hardship, danger and stoicism, the author provides nine chapters of text discussing the Cummins prison farm, the size and dating of the photographs, the restorative work done on the collection, the differences between photographs of men and women, the order of these photographs and where these portraits fit within the context of American portrait photography. He has also included an appendix written by Charles Hackney, nicknamed “Cooter” who provides a first-hand account of what life inside Cummins prison was like during his incarcerations in 1957 and 1960.

4 This collection is of great value to material culture scholars who rely heavily on the use of photography to document items under study, to record particular ethnographic moments or to analyze and interpret the meaning of physical artifacts being studied. This collection of portraits ultimately reveals much about how human beings respond to images of the human face. As Jackson says:The conclusions we draw, the feelings we have, the narratives we suppose—they are all our own, based on our encounters with individual images and on the facts of our own lives, uninfluenced by accounts in dossiers that may or may not be correct in matters large and small. The images are, in that regard, mirrors, resonating with aspects of ourselves we perhaps never before encountered. (58)

5 Pictures from a Drawer introduced me to people I have never met, to faces I have never seen before. Yet, these faces spoke to me in a powerful way and I will remember them.


Jackson, Bruce. 1987. Fieldwork. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press.