About the Photographer
American, b. 1953
Margaret Stratton works in the media of photography, video and installation to address subjects such as violence, loss, absence, and rituals of commemoration. Frequently in her photographic work she examines buildings that have been abandoned, giving shape to an ongoing investigation of spaces that embody accumulated histories. These sites bear traces of past events, suggesting how a place can emerge as a document of civilization, or some aspect of it, in the absence of a human presence.
In 1994 Stratton began visiting deserted prisons in California, Pennsylvania, Montana, and New York State to create a series of black-and-white photographs, which she titled Detained in Purgatory. Made with a large-format camera, these images are detailed and carefully composed, allowing one to potentially envision what went on in these rooms. But Stratton holds to a notion of what she calls "a terrible beauty," which hints at violence and loss. She renders elements of the environment, such as deep shadows, light streaming in from nearby windows, or the textures of peeling paint, with a degree of formal elegance. The structures she documents are empty ruins, easily aestheticized, but they stand in for the numerous prisons that are still in operation today. "At odds with the tidy annotation embossed upon brass plaques that dignify these places as official memorials," Stratton writes in the magazine Contact Sheet, "these images of discarded prisons are visual embodiments of the gothic nature of captivity and its barbarity, isolation, intolerance, and basic inhumanity."
In the mid- and late 1990s, Stratton also completed the Fire Series, a set of black and white photographs of public and private places that had been destroyed or transformed by fires. The images Bibles (1995) is a close-up view of a sprawling mass of charred bibles. Tightly framed, the photograph excludes the context, emphasizing the destructive event without providing an easily discernible hint of its cause. As with her photographs of prisons, Stratton, in this series, melds the genre of social documentary with the formal priorities of aesthetic discourse. The photograph, printed at a large size, accentuates the texture of the crumbling ashes as well as the pronounced contrast between the blackend debris and the bright white of the few untouched pages, which remain partially legible.
Born in Seattle, Stratton attended Evergreen State College, earning a BA in Media Arts (1977). She went on to complete an MA and an MFA at the University of New Mexico (1983, 1985), where she studied with Betty Hahn, Tom Barrow, and Ann Noggle. Stratton is a professor of photography in the School of Art and Art History at the University of Iowa in Iowa City.