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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
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
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
© 2006 Christian Perring. All rights
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.