Ten years in the big house | Art Critic's Choice | Chicago Reader

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Ten years in the big house

Lloyd DeGrane's "Prison" show documents doing time


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"Prison," the new exhibit of photographs by Reader contributor Lloyd DeGrane, starts with a bus ferrying inmates from Cook County jail on the south side to the Stateville Correctional Center in Joliet. DeGrane often took that trip, if not that bus: he spent the 1990s documenting life in the can, with help from Simon "Sam" Gutierrez, a convict he befriended. Gutierrez's letters to DeGrane accompany some of the pictures on display. In one, he writes about looking out the bus window at passing cars. Sometimes "the driver looks at you . . . and you wonder if he knows you're on your way to prison, you wonder if that thought makes him happy."

Not much happiness has made its way into "Prison." DeGrane's frank black-and-white compositions shift from crowd shots at County, where detainees are packed into holding pens, to prison portraiture. A Nation of Islam member stands before a picture of Louis Farrakhan. Somebody's "prison bitch" poses provocatively outside a cell door. There's little interaction recorded. In fact, there's little action of any kind. The effect is of silence.

Oddly, the images I found most affecting were the least personal. DeGrane looks down a hallway in the segregation unit and sees only prisoners' arms and legs, shoved at crazy angles through the slots of their cell doors. It's surreal, even circuslike. And so is F House, a kind of big-house big top from which guards can see a full 360 degrees. DeGrane was wandering around a basement area in Stateville when he happened to come upon two disused electric chairs sitting side by side. They look medieval in his photo, and they're still terrifying.

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