BLACK IS THE DAY, BLACK IS THE NIGHT

2009-2016

Of the 2.3 million people incarcerated in the United States, an estimated 100,000 of them are kept in solitary confinement, often for years on end.  Black is the Day, Black is the Night, a project spanning from 2009-2016, explores how that type of long-term isolation and incarceration can affect an individual's psychology, sense of self, and perception of reality.  Through personal correspondence with men serving life and death sentences, I created images that attempt to showcase the unexpectedly vulnerable aspects of my pen pals' incarcerated lives. Using appropriated material, I created composite landscapes of memories shared in letters, overlaying them to account for the number of years each had spent in prison as well as pixelated portraits using an image loss ratio of years behind bars to years alive.  I constructed objects with instruction from my pen pals like jump ropes made of bedsheets and paint sets made of dissolved candy and tap water.  I sent these images to them. This went on for years.  Of the seven men I originally wrote with: one man was released in 2010 at the age of thirty after spending 15 years in prison.  Three men eventually opted to move on from the project. One man was executed in 2009 after spending 12 years on death row, another executed in 2012 after spending over 15 years on death row, both of which maintained their innocence throughout their sentences.  And most recently, one of the men was released early from a life without parole sentence that had been given to him at the age of 16. Leading up to his release, he had served twenty-two years in an adult super max prison, seventeen of which were spent in solitary confinement. 

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"Every image, most pronouncedly the portraits of the men themselves, is marked by compromise — pixelation or blur or another form of indeterminacy. The amount of "image loss," as Elkins describes it, reflects the proportion of years the men have served to total years lived. Erosion of the self and suppression of spirit are utterly clear, just as the pictures are not." - Leah Ollman, Los Angeles Times

"Through rendering their portraits and the images of places they told Elkins they would never see again into something vague and indecipherable (the portraits are digitally distorted based on the ratio of how much time the men had spent in prison, so the longer, the hazier), she somehow humanizes them. Seeing these elusive, immaterial images of real people living life in prison is powerful, the visual significators reminding us that just as memory cannot sustain itself when it is pulled from place and time, even a person’s self gradually evaporates when isolated for so long." - Joel Beers, OC WEEKLY

"As viewers, we are invited to puzzle over an assortment of clues, including reenactments, exhibits submitted for our considerations, partial evidence, and statements both leading and misleading. The work is elegiac and provocative, asking the viewer to engage above and beyond a simple, cursory viewing of these images." - Leslie A. Martin, Aperture Foundation

"Photographer Amy Elkins offers an unflinching contemplation of capital punishment and identity in a culture of mass incarceration." - Mass Appeal

"Elkins ponders the psychological impact incarceration has on inmates, using blurry and pixelated photos to imagine how life on the inside shapes and distorts an inmates’ perception of reality and awareness." Pete Brook, WIRED Magazine

"Rather than a documentary angle, Elkins has chosen artifacts and scenes that reveal both the preponderance of time on death row (enough time to become a poet, learn calligraphy, read voraciously) and it’s corrosive qualities as it ineffably moves these prisoners toward the end. It’s a tough project, but one that reveals Elkins’ profound sensitivity to the shades of gray in this potentially black-and-white issue." - Arts and Culture, TX

"Elkins’ imagery of the darkness in the lives and deaths of these men may be morose, but optimism is intrinsic to her determination to see the world from their perspective." - Artillery Magazine