Recently, a two-album collection containing 400 images of Los Angeles gang and prison photos taken between 1977 and 1993 sold for $45,000. Pete Brook of Prison Photography writes about the the journey the collection took to market, and ponders the difference between moneyed collectors and preservationists.
[Los Angeles area: San Quentin, Compton, etc. 1977-1996]. Two photo albums and numerous loose snapshots totaling over 400 images of Los Angeles gang and prison photos taken between 1977 and 1993. By far the largest vernacular archive of its kind we’ve seen, valuable for the insight it provides into Los Angeles gang, prison, and rap cultures. The first photo album contains 96 Polaroid photographs, many of which have been tagged (some in ink, others with the tag etched directly into the emulsion) by a wide swath ofLos Angeles gang members. Most of the photos are of prisoners, with the majority of subjects flashing gang signs. The index sheet at the beginning of the album is covered on both the recto and verso with signatures and tags from a number of individuals and gangs, including some gangs from the East Coast, making this in effect a sort of prison gang ”daybook.” The second album has images from car magazines appropriated to make endpapers; the “frontispiece” image is of a late 30s-early 40s African-American woman, apparently the album-creator’s mother, captioned “Moms No. 1. With a Bullet for All Seasons.” In addition to 44 images (most detached but worth preserving in their context) the album contains newspaper clippings related to the West Side Killers, Perry Lee Jackson and Norris Larue Reece, who killed six people during a robbery in 1980, when they both were 16 years old. Jackson and Reece were prosecuted by Assistant Prosecutor Lance Ito of the Gang Unit (who would later gain notoriety as the judge in the O.J. Simpson trial). Being minors they were ineligible for either the death penalty or life sentences, but they did receive sentences of nearly 100 years each. The clippings bear annotations, apparently by either/or Jackson and Reece, and our suspicion is that the album belonged to one of them (although there are many individuals pictured, Jackson and Reece appear repeatedly). In addition to the images in the photo album, the archive includes 170 loose color snapshots and 100 loose color Polaroids dating from 1977 through the early 1990s. The images are almost entirely of people, most in prison, with some neighborhood shots. Many of the images bear inscriptions or captions, some with etched or ink tags. The examination of the photographs reveal a bewildering array of gang affiliation, in some cases reflecting the constantly shifting landscape of gang alliances, competition, and vendettas. While some photographic gang documentation exists, it is usually found piecemeal. This is a vast accumulation remarkable not just for its depth and breadth, but for the length of time it represents, and presumably for the narrative arcs that might be uncovered by careful research. While adolescent gang members are often responsible for the creation of cultural rites and mores, they are, for understandable reasons, not well known for the preservation of that culture. Given the importance of rap music and culture in American society, thisarchive provides an unparalleled cache of primary vernacular source material in support of that tradition.