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Many of the photographs look ordinary.
A man winds up on a pitcher’s mound. Another man sprawls on a lawn, smiling, a baby in his lap.
Others depict darker scenes.
One photo showing a man propped up by two others, his bare back and a crescent of blood around his neck exposed, is labeled “Stabbing in Gym.”
[Read about an art exhibition in Los Angeles that explores love and intimacy while incarcerated.]
“Taken as purely documentary of events inside the prison, they’re fascinating,” said Nigel Poor, a San Francisco-based artist who put together “The San Quentin Project,” which opened at the Milwaukee Art Museum earlier this year. “In an art context, they’re an opening for people to insert themselves.”
Ms. Poor told me recently that she started volunteering at San Quentin in 2011, teaching a class about the history of photography.
[Read more about Ms. Poor’s work at San Quentin, including as co-host of the Ear Hustle podcast, here.]
The following year, she said, she learned about an archive of photographs taken at San Quentin, the state’s oldest prison. She got permission to start scanning and archiving the images, which were annotated poorly or not at all.
That turned into a collaborative storytelling project, in which she asked inmates to interpret the images, taken by corrections officers starting in the late-1930s and stretching to the 1970s.
The experiences of the men she worked with, Ms. Poor said, added context and their perspectives added meaning.
She recalled how one of the men working on the project looked at the image marked “Stabbing in Gym,” and saw a body “like a fallen cathedral.”
The two arms, representing the forces of good and evil, buttressed the stabbed man.
“I love that he thought about the body as architecture,” Ms. Poor said. “It was such a poetic way to look at what to most people is this horrifying image.”
It was labeled “Mother’s Day 5-9-76.”
“I love this photograph because it denotes fatherhood and its importance,” Mr. Coles-El, 40, wrote in response to emailed questions. “Even in prison, fatherhood is vital to the sanity of some of the men here.”
Being able to contribute to the history of San Quentin, Mr. Coles-El wrote, was rewarding, as well as challenging.
He wrote that even as a graffiti artist, he found physically writing on the photos themselves — rather than, say, writing separate captions — to be an “aesthetic problem,” so he stuck with photos printed with wide borders.
Mr. Coles-El wrote that he hopes visitors to the exhibition will see San Quentin as a place where life continues — a place where, “people, both free and incarcerated, can work together to change what people think and feel about rehabilitation.”
The exhibition’s viewers may come in imagining San Quentin inmates as a faceless mass, but he hopes they leave seeing them as more human.
“We have faces, too,” he wrote.
“The San Quentin Project” is on view until Nov. 17.
Here’s what you may have missed over the weekend
We often link to sites that limit access for nonsubscribers. We appreciate your reading Times coverage, but we also encourage you to support local news if you can.
President Trump is set to visit the Bay Area this week for the first time as president. He’ll be heading to a California where a recent flurry of progressive legislation was catalyzed by his tenure, where observers say a posture of resistance has created renewed urgency to find ways for government to solve problems. [The New York Times]
Also: Join a discussion about California’s battles with the president at the Sacramento Public Library on Sept. 25. My colleagues Jennifer Medina, Ivan Penn and Jose Del Real will be there. [New York Times Live Events]
In the wave of bills sent to Gov. Gavin Newsom’s desk last week was one that would require all public universities in the state to provide medication abortions. If the governor signs the bill — the first of its kind — it’s expected to draw legal challenges from anti-abortion groups. [The New York Times]
California’s “red flag” gun law most likely thwarted attacks at a Sunnyvale Ford dealership, Netflix’s headquarters in Los Gatos and in Palo Alto, the authorities said. Here’s a look at how the law works and where it’s being used. [The Mercury News]
In San Francisco, a program for busing homeless residents out of town has existed since Mr. Newsom was mayor. Now, other cities have adopted the idea — which they see as a simple and inexpensive way to get people on a path to housing. Results have been mixed. [The New York Times]
Over two and a half days in July 2018, 59 firefighters and 34 state prison inmates would risk their lives recovering the body of a firefighter who had died trying to stave off a blaze headed for his home and his family. Here’s what it took to bring home Braden Varney. [The San Francisco Chronicle]
Felicity Huffman was sentenced to 14 days in federal prison for her involvement in the sweeping college admissions scandal. [The New York Times]
Could U.C.L.A. have stopped the cheating scandal five years ago? The campus opened an investigation into a case that echoed key elements of William “Rick” Singer’s scheme. [The Los Angeles Times]
An anti-vaccine protester was arrested on Friday after she threw a menstrual cup full of blood from the gallery at lawmakers at the Capitol. [The Sacramento Bee]
On the scenes
At the Toronto International Film Festival, where many an Oscar campaign has been born, the buzz has already begun for Jennifer Lopez in “Hustlers.” (It would, believe it or not, be her first Oscar.) [The New York Times]
There is not a single lesbian bar in the city of Los Angeles. But the women running the Fingerjoint, a pop-up bar, are hoping to reverse the tide. [Eater]
Also, if you missed it, read about how San Francisco’s queer communities are carving out spaces in a changing city. [The New York Times]
Jill Cowan grew up in Orange County, graduated from U.C. Berkeley and has reported all over the state, including the Bay Area, Bakersfield and Los Angeles — but she always wants to see more. Follow along here or on Twitter, @jillcowan.
California Today is edited by Julie Bloom, who grew up in Los Angeles and graduated from U.C. Berkeley.