Since the 1990s, Deborah Luster has used photography, installation, and text to investigate her ongoing relationship with violence and its consequences. Following the brutal murder of her mother in 1988, Luster wrote in the introduction to her monograph One Big Self: Prisoners of Louisiana, published by Twin Palms Publishing with a book-length poem by C.D. Wright, “I cannot explain the need I feel (to produce this work) because I do not fully understand it myself. I only know that it has something to do with the formal quality of loss and the way we cannot speak directly to those who have gone—how to touch the disappeared. I need an aesthetic equivalent to the endless and indirect formality of loss.”
Luster, who lives in New Orleans, worked for six years in the prisons of Louisiana, including the infamous, maximum-security prison at Angola, to produce an archive of formal portraits of inmates. Exhibited portraits are printed using silver gelatin emulsion on metal plates. Text is etched on the plate backs, and the archive is housed in a black, steel cabinet. Viewers are obliged to pull open the heavy cabinet drawers to touch and view the images. “It’s interesting,” said Luster in a 2008 interview with Lizbet Simmons in Prison Culture (City Lights Books), “this project started out as a document of a prison population in Louisiana at the turn of the millennium. Over the course of the project (25,000 paper prints were returned to inmates) … I came to realize that the project was about the power of the personal photograph, the importance of that slip of paper with the image of another printed there.”
Luster’s recent body of work, Tooth for an Eye: A Chorography of Violence in Orleans Parish (Twin Palms Publishing), is a photographic archive installation documenting contemporary and historical homicide sites in New Orleans, which Holland Cotter wrote in his 2011 New York Times review, “add up to a topological survey map of death on the streets of New Orleans.” Tooth for an Eye was exhibited in New York in 2011 and received a powerful critical response. Vince Aletti, writing in the New Yorker said that “Luster turns the locations into memorials, and the subjects of her carefully focused attention are impossible to ignore. Her format emphasizes that focus by framing each site in a circle, not unlike the lens of the viewer camera she uses…the effect is both seductive and unsettling, like looking through a peephole of the sight of a gun. Suddenly, we are there, and desolation, desperation, and death are very real.”
In 2013 Luster was awarded a John Simon Guggenheim Fellowship. Tooth for an Eye was exhibited at the Ogden Museum of Southern Art and will be exhibited at Blue Sky Gallery in Portland, Oregon. Her work was also shown in the Smithsonian Museum of American Art exhibition, A Democracy of Images. She gave visiting artist’s presentations at Pratt Institute, Hendrix College and Watkins College of Art and Design in 2013. Luster was awarded a 2014 residency at the Irish Museum of Modern Art, Dublin.
Luster’s past awards include an Anonymous Was A Woman Award, the Dorothea Lange-Paul Taylor Prize, a Peter S. Reed Foundation Grant, the John Gutmann Photography Fellowship, and the Baum Award for Emerging American Photographers.
Luster’s work is in many public collections including the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, California; Pier 24, California; the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, California; the Akron Museum of Art, Ohio; Brown University, Rhode Island; the Henry Art Gallery, Washington; the Kemper Museum of Art, Missouri; the Museum of Fine Arts, Texas; the New Orleans Museum of Art, Louisiana; and the Smithsonian Museum of American Art, Washington, DC.
Jack Shainman Gallery has worked with Luster since 2004 when she exhibited One Big Self. The show traveled to a number of locations including the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. In 2011, Tooth for an Eye was exhibited at Jack Shainman Gallery.