Deborah Luster is best known for the series, One Big Self: Prisoners of Louisiana, which she undertook in 1998 with poet C. D. Wright. This collection of photographic portraits portrays prisoners from three Louisiana prisons including the infamous Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola. In her 2003 monograph (One Big Self, Twin Palms Publishing), she writes, “I chose to photograph each person as they presented their very own selves before my camera on the chance that I might be fortunate enough to contact, as poet Jack Gilbert writes ‘their hearts in their marvelous cases.’ These portraits—painstakingly printed on 5 x 4 inch sheets of black aluminum—are individualistic, diverse and emotionally compelling.
Tooth for an Eye: A Chorography of Violence in Orleans Parish (Twin Palms Publishing, 2011) is a photographic archive documenting contemporary and historical homicide sites in New Orleans, the homicide capital of the United States. The result is an exploration of the dizzyingly empty space at the core of violence. Luster approaches this invisible, excised population obliquely, with haunting, unpopulated photographs that seem to exist outside of time, simultaneously distant and chillingly close.
Tooth for an Eye ultimately expands into a mapping or chorography of a much beloved and beleaguered city, the topographical, architectural, material, and cultural phenomenon that is New Orleans. By approaching cityscapes through the disorienting context of homicide, the work disturbs the deep crust of stereotypical visual interpretations of New Orleans, a city that has been photographed repeatedly but still remains elusive.
In exhibition, the images comprising Tooth for an Eye are presented as large wall-bound framed photographs and as an archive of image and text, bound in large ledgers and available to viewers for browsing and handling. Luster's work has been shown at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the Whitney Museum of American Art; Museum of Contemporary Photography, Columbia College, Chicago; Prospect. 1 International Biennial, New Orleans, Jack Shainman Gallery, New York; Ballroom Marfa; the Bell Gallery, Brown University; and Blue Sky Gallery, Portland, OR; among other venues. Luster’s awards include the Dorothea Lange—Paul Taylor Prize for Documentary Photography from the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University (with C.D. Wright), an Anonymous Was a Woman Award, The John Guttman Award, a Peter S. Reed Foundation Award, and a Bucksbaum Family Award for American Photography (Friends of Photography, San Francisco).
Her work is included in the permanent collections of the Whitney Museum of American Art, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, New Orleans Museum of Art, and other notable public and private collections.