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Default Gallery: Inside the Architecture of Authority

</img>: Courtesy Richard RossA new book by photographer Richard Ross, Architecture of Authority, examines the way institutional buildings exert power over people. Ross managed to gain impressive access to all kinds of secretive or high-security buildings, from Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, to the supermax high-security Pelican Bay prison in California. Ross credits his unprecedented access to a combination of persistence and sincere curiosity. "Many of these people want to show you these places once they know that you're interested in their world," he says.
To question the pervasiveness of intimidating, "disgusting" architecture, the images in Ross' book are both striking and inviting. Ross intentionally makes the photos of oppressive structures look seductive. "You can convince people a lot easier by whispering in their ear rather than hitting them over the head," says Ross.
Following is a selection from the book along with Ross's commentary. Ross has an exhibition at the Aperture Gallery in New York which is now open to the public.
Left: Pictured is the prison's lethal injection chamber. "Ninety percent of inmates who enter Angola [Louisiana State Penitentiary], never leave," Ross says. Inmates work on the prison farm and are not allowed to eat the cows they raise because the quality of the meat is too high. Meals at Angola can cost as little as 17 cents per person since so much of the food is grown on site. Twice a year, inmates enjoy a rodeo on the prison grounds with barbecues and bull riding.
</img>: Courtesy Richard RossPelican Bay prison holds some of the most dangerous inmates in California. Inmates are often accompanied by four guards during transport within the facility. The light coming through the ceiling in this photo is likely the only sunlight that inmates see during their sentence. In spite of the immense security, Ross says, prisoners are still able to get messages to the outside world to carry out deals and assassinations.
</img>: Courtesy Richard RossOpened in 1829, the Eastern State Penitentiary is one of the oldest prisons in the United States. When it was built, the word 'penitentiary' signified that prisoners were to be penitent in the eyes of God. Even the design of the walls was meant to resemble those of a church.
"In the Eastern State Penitentiary they had skylights and natural light come in because they equated the idea of light and God as one," Ross says. He draws visual parallels in his book between prisons, churches and law enforcement institutions as places where people are intended to seek some form of redemption.
</img>: Courtesy Richard Ross Nothing is private in this isolation room, a fact conveyed by the prominent camera in the corner. Ross says the use of rooms like these is at the extreme of an authority continuum that begins in preschool (also featured in his book):
"Situations evolve without anybody noticing," Ross says. "Civil liberties are taken away piecemeal but they're rarely given back. So it starts with kids giving up some of their independence to sit on the circle at Montessori school, and that's socialization, or learning to live within a group, but at some point it gets a lot rougher than that."
</img>: Courtesy Richard Ross There is often a third party present in interrogations, Ross says, who sits behind the interrogator. This adds an ominous element of uncertainty. The prisoner is left to wonder whether this person has the ability to intervene, and if so, whether it would be on his behalf or not:
"It's almost as if they act like an omnipotent presence. The silent voice. It's almost Buddhist. They don't say anything. The person being interrogated could look over at that person and wonder if this person is going to tip the scales. Are they going to intercede at any point? At what point do they intercede? At what point do they stop being a neutral, silent observer? Their role is always confused there. The uncertainty assists in the interrogation process."
</img>: Courtesy Richard Ross In photographing military and law enforcement buildings, Ross never directly requests to photograph the most sensitive areas.
"When I go to a Secret Service interview room, I would never say to them, 'Could I see your interrogation room?' They would bristle and I wouldn't get in," he explains.
In the case of Abu Ghraib prison, the notorious scene of torture and abuse of prisoners, this was particularly important:
"If you look at a continuum of a conversation, an interview, interrogation and torture, where's that line?" Ross asks. "By the time prisoners are in Abu Ghraib, that's an interrogation room. They're not fucking around and they're not standing on ceremony."
</img>: Courtesy Richard Ross Ross' father was a New York City police officer at this precinct. "I grew up there," Ross says. Though he died 20 years ago, Ross says his father would be amused that he is able to make a living by photographing these institutions.
</img>: Courtesy Richard Ross Though the cells in this prison have been removed, it is a classic example of a panopticon, where prisoners are controlled by the actual or perceived gaze of guards at a central position. One of the most efficient architectures of authority, the simple design allows many people to be controlled by very few.
</img>: Courtesy Richard Ross For Ross, this is the signature photo of the project. Shot in August 2005 in almost 120-degree heat, within a window of five minutes, the photo was almost prohibited by the officers on-site.
</img>: Courtesy Richard Ross The curtain in this photo segregates the women from the men in a small corner of the mosque. Ross says he wanted to give an idea of the way women are weighted or valued in these buildings.
</img>: Courtesy Richard Ross "These mosques are the architecture of our world. They're really gorgeous," Ross says. "In any of the mosques there's never any image of anything figurative. There's no idol worshiping in a mosque."
</img>: Courtesy Richard Ross "I was in there photographing that room. It was empty and then a kid, probably in his early twenties who is Arabic, Iraqi, comes in and says, 'Are you a photographer?' We need someone to help us document the birth of the Iraqi constitution," Ross says.
"I ended up going with them for several days photographing sheiks, the president, Muqtada al-Sadr, al-Maliki, with real flexibility of going from one side of the yellow tape to the other," Ross says.
"They were really cool about that. They were great people. I would be having lunch with the oil minister and he would be saying things like 'Thank you for liberating our people,' and I said, 'Don't thank me, I had nothing to do with it, and I would've voted against it.'"


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