In a letter written to photographer Amy Elkins, a 32-year old prison inmate serving his 19th year of incarceration wrote, "There is a cage we all long to escape from. Your cage, may not be mine. My cage may not be yours." This concept of respective internment is consistent throughout Elkin's works. Whether it's through her tableaus of capital punishment, or portraits of youth beholden to a (often contradictory) code of social expectations, Elkins explores the literal and psychological solitary confinement born of identity stereotypes, societal constructs, and gendered expectations that shape our sense of self and others. Elkins is particularly interested in masculine identity, and the antithetical balance between vulnerability and aggression that contributes to both the systemic notion of masculinity and the uniquely American tradition of mass incarceration – which, in turn, share an interdependent relationship with one another.
In "Black is the Day, Black is the Night", a project that spanned from 2009-2016, Elkins explores how the notion of passing time can affect an individual's psychology, sense of self, and perception of reality. When days and nights seemingly blur together—specifically, when serving a maximum or life sentence "on the inside"—how do humans process their own mortality and desires? Through the accumulation of personal correspondence with men either on death row or serving life sentences, Elkins pieces together a portfolio of images that showcase the unexpectedly vulnerable and humanized aspects of her pen pals' incarcerated lives: a seemingly innocuous skyscape represents the single hour a day an inmate was allowed to view the sky through a grated window; a pixilated portrait is created using an image loss ratio of years behind bars to years alive. Using appropriated material, Elkins takes painstaking measures to create composite images of precious memories her correspondents recount in their letters, and overlays them to account for the number of years the storyteller has spent in prison. No image is without a backstory, much like the individuals they represent.
Amy Elkins (b. 1979 Venice, CA) is a photographer currently based in the Greater Los Angeles area. She received her BFA in Photography from the School of Visual Arts in New York City. She has been exhibited and published both nationally and internationally, including at The High Museum of Art in Atlanta, GA; Kunsthalle Wien in Vienna, Austria; the Center for Creative Photography in Tucson, AZ; the Minneapolis Institute of Arts and the North Carolina Museum of Art among others. Elkins has been awarded The Lightwork Artist-in-Residence in Syracuse, NY in 2011, the Villa Waldberta International Artist-in-Residence in Munich, Germany in 2012, the Aperture Prize and the Latitude Artist-in-Residence in 2014 and The Peter S. Reed Foundation Grant in 2015. Elkins' first book Black is the Day, Black is the Night won the 2017 Lucie Independent Book Award. It was Shortlisted for the 2017 Mack First Book Award and the 2016 Paris Photo-Aperture Foundation Photobook Prize as well as listed as one of the Best Photobooks of 2016 by TIME, Humble Arts Foundation, Photobook Store Magazine and Photo-Eye among others.