Photographer Peter Merts spent over 15 years criss-crossing California and photographing various kinds of art classes in all 36 adult state prisons. His newest book, Ex Crucible: The Passion of Incarcerated Artists (Daylight Books, June 2022), is an immersive collection of these images, along with essays, a map, and an interview excerpt with Merts sharing more of the project origins and context.All this combines to provide a view into the complex layers that inhabit not only the project as a whole, but the prison system, and the people contained within.
It is an ever-present dichotomy throughout these photographs: humans creating and connecting expressively and openly with creative mediums; and the prison facility backdrop that symbolizes different messaging, and often stereotypes in ways that can be dehumanizing.
The viewer sees photographs of people rehearsing Macbeth. In one photo, an artist is angling his oil painting up to light streaming through a window to capture a different view. Some images are of people in-process creating art, while others are more portrait in nature with the artist alongside their completed piece. The book is full of photographs of a rich array of artistic endeavors: drawing, painting, singing, acting, sculpting, dancing, playing musical instruments, spoken word and movement. There is also the repeating blue of the prison uniform.
In an interview with Michael Kirchoff, Merts shares his objectives as a photographer. Consistent with many artists, he cites learning about himself through the process of art making. But Merts also sees his photography as a vehicle for advocacy. This includes for the programs providing arts programming that addresses rehabilitative and mental health issues, and also to show a 'human' side to the stereotypes around prisoners themselves. Simply but powerfully put he says, "My goal is to illuminate their humanity."
The book also includes essays by two incarcerated individuals who each speak to this aspect of Merts's project. Rahsaan “New York” Thomas shares, "Peter’s pictures show incarcerated people as they are today, post-traumatic influences, and give us an opportunity to be seen as much more than 'violent felons.' Now, when my sons type their dad’s name into Google, pictures come up with me wearing a big, bright smile, accompanying the positive accomplishments reframing my past."
Following the images from within the prison walls, is a subsection of photographs entitled "Prison Towns." The prison locations span the length and width of California, and they are often placed in rural or small communities. Merts shares he would sometimes overnight, or explore the local areas, and his landscapes are absent of people yet filled with their presence. The juxtaposition of prison placement in these isolated regions operates on a symbolic as well as documentary level, and Merts' inclusion of these images in this book reinforces this.
Of the book's title, Merts notes, "It refers to an immutable stone container—in this case, a prison—as a place where intense energy refines and purifies a precious substance. The energy I’m thinking of is the experience of trauma and incarceration; the precious substance is artistic passion."
Ex Crucible includes an essay by Annie Buckley, art professor at San Diego State University and founder/director of the Prison Arts Collective, a provider of art instruction in California prisons. Tim Robbins, Academy Award-winning actor and director whose theater company leads workshops in prisons, describes the images in the book:
In these pictures you will witness the radial change that happens in individuals when they are reminded of their humanity and their value through participation in music, visual arts, and theatrical programs.
Peter Merts is a photographer residing in the San Francisco area. For decades he has focused on documenting the work of several arts-based non-profit (NGO) organizations. He is co-author of Paths of Discovery: Art Practice and Its Impact in California Prisons (2nd edition).