Time Served: The Evolution of a Documentary Project

N.C. Museum of ArtIf museums are repositories of memory, the N.C. Museum of Art took its mission to heart in the year 2000, when it was given the land under the former Polk Youth Correctional Center. Rather than simply burying the past, leaders asked Raleigh photographer David Simonton to preserve a record of the Polk buildings before they were demolished.

The prison was constructed in the 1920s. Over the years it became increasingly run down, as repeated promises to move or close the facility prevented necessary improvements and repairs; by the time it closed in 1997, it was a dangerous, fetid swamp of violence and neglect. Simonton had made a name for himself as a chronicler of ruined and forgotten landscapes with a series on Ellis Island, but the ghosts of the Polk center clung to the place in a much more indelible fashion.

“There was this awful vibe there,” he says. “It just felt creepy. And the first few times I went there, I just loved to get out of thereI mean, it was a really nasty place. And it smelled bad. The thing that surprised me was that it affected me that way. … I didn’t think an empty space could pack that kind of punch.”

In keeping with the NCMA’s contract, which required him to document the site in any way he saw fit over nine and a half months, Simonton eventually rescued beauty from the dilapidation. In fact, he far exceeded his mandate, shooting hundreds of rolls of film over a four-year stretch. His keen aesthetic sense makes the pictures more than just a document; they’re a mirror of the land’s transition, from a hellish place of suffering to part of the museum park’s enchanting green oasis.

Simonton will show pictures and talk about his artistic process, while also touching on the history of the land, in a free lecture starting at 2:30 p.m. Visit ncartmuseum.org. Marc Maximov