To Richard Ross, the DMV is more than an annoyance; it’s an example of authority at work in our daily lives. Ross’s new book, The Architecture of Authority, illustrates how the physical spaces of prison, the police station, confessional, and even school force us to negotiate with these institutions for our autonomy and, in some cases, our freedom.

Richard Ross is a professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara, a recipient of an NEA Fullbright, and is currently a Guggenheim Fellow.
Architecture of Authority is out this month, and there will be a talk and book signing at the Aperture Gallery in New York on Sept. 25th. Other books include Waiting for the End of the World, Gathering Light, and Museology. He has a tattoo on his right bicep. All images © Richard Ross, all rights reserved.

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I really appreciate the concept of your project. How was it that you started photographing these spaces?

I was a political science major, and [I studied] international relations. I wanted to do more, given today’s political climate and insanity. I felt it was obligatory, not optional. That is the philosophical answer. On a practical level, I noticed that the confessional at the Santa Barbara Catholic Mission was about the same proportions as the interview room of the Los Angeles Secret Service headquarters. Both were intimate spaces that forced their occupants together and would [coerce] them to give up secrets and confessions in exchange for some form of redemption. Secular and non-secular—the spaces promoted that intimacy. From [that realization], I was off.

How do you decide what locations to shoot?

Part is simply what is available and accessible. What I can talk myself into doing, and what I can talk others into letting me do, including what I can talk my wife and kids into letting me do.

What is the connection between somewhere like Abu Ghraib and a Montessori classroom?

A Montessori classroom (Gold Door, specifically) “invites” the 18-month-old child to join the circle where power is shared equally with each of his or her peers and the teacher. It is early socialization. It is one point of a continuum. The “seg” cells, or segregation cells at Abu Ghraib are sort of at the other end. You are not invited anywhere, and the authority is more forcefully directed. One is benign socialization, the other brutal, but they are both directed socialization. Hence, the connection.

Many of these photographs are stomach-turning, especially the photos of prisons. How did you gain access to these locations? What was your experience of shooting there?

Yup, stomach-turning. I wear the hat of a university professor, journalist, or artist—whatever it takes. I grew up in New York City, where “no” was simply a starting point. Although I have been turned down cold, I find that usually, if you take the time to explain to people what you are doing and why, they are glad you’re paying attention and listening to them and who and what they are, so they open up.

Why is it that we have such a visceral, almost knee-jerk reaction to some locations and spaces of authority, while others seem very benign and in some cases even positive or productive space? Your work seems to suggest that there are relationships, and it’s our preconceptions and allegiances that prevent us from seeing this.

I am exploring and investigating. I hope I am not preaching. I find it surprising that the spaces built to communicate with others, Angola Prison in Louisiana, ICE [Immigration and Customs Enforcement] holding rooms in San Francisco, confessionals in Santa Barbara, and the Four Seasons Hotel in Mexico City all have common architectural characteristics, in spite of the social and economic spaces that they define. I like the drollness of these observations. I also love looking at the images seen on the cop shows like Law and Order, Cold Case, Without a Trace, NYPD Blue, etc. All have a look that is sometimes anachronistic to actual law enforcement situations, and other times dead-on. In most cases, the public understands these spaces only from TV.

What’s the danger in our familiarity with law and order on television, rather than in real life?

The lovely irony is Fred Thompson, who will run as a law-and-order, anti-terrorism candidate and our society’s salvation. I hope a voting public can separate the person from the role. Many cop shows have mirrors that act as observation ports. [In reality] these romanticisms of the past have given way to the need for DVD recordings of observations and confessions.

How do you understand authority? How does it operate in the spaces you photograph?

In many of these spaces, it is an asymmetrical relationship that the observer, or inhabitant is placed in. It tells the person where they exist in the site and possibly in society, either on a specific or a general level. We experience this when we go into a “major” space and the occupier can either address you from opposite a desk, or take you over to a coffee-table area that is more intimate.

What characterizes these spaces or ties them together?

I hope they all ask the viewers to judge where they exist and view themselves as potential participants. I hope the next time a person walks into the DMV or the principal’s office, or a police station, they understand how spaces are overtly constructed to socialize, herd, conform, or coax a certain behavior or obedience.

Why photograph the spaces when they’re empty?

I think the spaces are more pregnant and intimidating if they look like someone has just left, or they are ready for the viewer to sit down in the chair and be shackled or strapped down to the gurney and even be injected.

What surprised you in your experiences taking these photographs?

That my wife and kids let me go to Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib, Beirut, etc., and actually get these images.


TMN Editor Nicole Pasulka believes she could beat a lie detector. When she sits in a chair she almost never puts her feet on the floor. Even though she likes the internet a lot, she is convinced that people will always read magazines and she is secretly building one in her basement. More by Nicole Pasulka