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51 MonthsReview - 51 Months
by Carrie Levy
Trolley, 2005
Review by Christian Perring, Ph.D.
May 30th 2006 (Volume 10, Issue 22)

Carrie Levy is a young photographer whose book 51 Months documents the period that her father Glenn went to jail and was then released.  She was just 16 years old when he started his sentence in 1996, so she was 20 when he returned to the family.  Her photographs show her mother and younger brother in the family home, with some images of visits to the Allenwood Federal Prison Camp.  There is little accompanying text, but from the short pieces by Carrie Levy and Glenn Levy, it seems that the family had to move to a new house once Glenn was imprisoned, and from the pictures, it looks like their house was near railroad tracks. 

Many of the pictures show the back yard of the house, most of them taken from inside.  The yard is rather bare, with a tree at the end.  Levy shows it in the fall, when there is condensation on the window, in the winter when snow is falling, and at nighttime when the snow is just illuminated by a streetlight.  She also shows the kitchen sink, at first full of dirty plates and dishes, and later on empty and cleaner, and this conveys a sense of Levy's mother starting to get control of her new situation.  Several melancholy images show her mother looking somber, staring into space or preoccupied with looking after the house.  Her little brother also looks serious and often sad, especially on their trip to see their father in jail.  But things start to pick up and some family occasions look more cheerful with more people filling the house. 

About the last third of the book is devoted to Glenn Levy's return home.  He has an emotional hug with his young son, and he looks a little dazed sitting around the house.  He is greeted by family and friends, and he looks so pleased to be reunited with them.  He gradually comes to feel more comfortable in his new house and his very different circumstances.  The final image shows him dressed in a smart shirt and pressed slacks, standing in front of a cheesy picture of palm trees and a sandy beach, smiling but with his hands in his pockets, still rather disengaged from reality but with hopes for the future.

This is unusual documentary photography because of its subject matter, and it is interesting because of that.  However, it is often hard to tell exactly what is being shown, and the pictures themselves are not so striking.  Many of them seem rather ordinary images of family life, and they gain their power from the story they show.  The photographs of the backyard are quite interesting because of the way show the passage  of time, and they bring to mind the feeling of staring out of the window, but they are not frames in particularly interesting ways.  Photographs of Levy's little brother making a snow angel are underwhelming, as are those of the family lying around in or on a bed.  They document a sense of lethargy, but do not do much more than convey information that the family spent time lying around doing nothing.  The pictures would have had more emotional impact if there was more explanation of what they depicted: when they were taken, who they showed, what the occasion was.  The book feels more like a personal document than a more general comment on the experience of the family.  Looking through the pictures is like looking through someone else's photograph album that show a difficult time in her life.  Indeed, we get little sense of Levy's own feelings, since she does not appear in the pictures, and her images do not reveal much about herself.  One would expect to see similar sorts of pictures if a stranger was brought into the family to document this period of their lives.  So on the whole the book is a little disappointing.  Still, 51 Months does convey some of the emotions that a family will experience when the father is imprisoned and then returns, and as such it is distinctive and striking. 

There is a reading of the book that makes it more interesting, but it is not clear how much that is part of Levy's intent, because it is does not reflect so well on the family.  This stems from the anonymity of the house depicted on the cover and shown in the pictures.  The book is drab largely because of the drabness of the house and its featureless yard.  Even her brother's snow angel is drab.  The boring blue of the carpet in his bedroom, and the ugly gray walls are unappealing, and he and his mother sit on the floor playing with his hamster but remain bored.  Her tubby little brother sits on a large basketball beanie chair in a basketball shirt, playing a video game and he still looks bored.  Even when the extended family gathers together in the house, with its generic wooden kitchen closets, and sits around a table eating KFC bucket meals and drinking diet coke, they look bored.  The family hardly interacts with each other at all.  Once Glenn gets past the initial fear and euphoria of returning home, he sits around looking bored.  So one can see the book not so much as a documentary of a family's experience when the father goes to prison, but more as a comment on the bleak featureless existence of modern American life, which might not be so different from prison.  I prefer such an interpretation, but it seems unlikely that Levy would endorse it. 




© 2006 Christian Perring. All rights reserved.


Christian Perring, Ph.D., is Chair of the Philosophy Department at Dowling College, Long Island, and editor of Metapsychology Online Reviews.  His main research is on philosophical issues in medicine, psychiatry and psychology.


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