David Birkin, MIDNIGHT BLUE, 2017
Prussian Blue, the synthetic pigment that gives cyanotypes their distinctive hue, is a chemical by-product of hydrogen cyanide or ‘prussic acid’ — a residue of which was found on the walls of the Nazi gas chambers at Majdanek. The same poison gas was used for many years on Death Row in the United States.
In 1987, a BBC documentary titled Fourteen Days in May recorded the final two weeks in the life of Edward Earl Johnson, a young African American man who, at age 18, was wrongly convicted of murder after being forced to sign a confession by two white police officers.
Johnson’s lawyer, Clive Stafford Smith, later founded the human rights organisation Reprieve with the film’s director, Paul Hamann.
Midnight Blue is a series of cyanotypes, or ‘sun prints’, exposed from negatives that Hamann took 30 years ago at the Mississippi State Penitentiary where Johnson was incarcerated and executed.
As metaphorical blueprints of a system of racial oppression, these photochemical traces are a reminder of the fact that only two countries have ever used cyanide as a systematic way of killing their own people: Nazi Germany and the United States.
The work takes its title from the art supply company Crayola, which changed the name of its Prussian Blue crayon to Midnight Blue after teachers complained that German military history was an inappropriate reference for American schoolchildren. A minute past midnight is the traditional time set for executions in the U.S.
Original negatives by Paul Hamann. Cyanotype prints by David Birkin.
Cyanotype prints from top left to bottom right:
1. Mississippi State Penitentiary (guard tower)
2. Death row gas chamber (perimeter fence)
3. Death row facility (aerial view)
4. Gas chamber (witness viewing room)
5. Gas chamber (door open)
6. Gas chamber (door closed)
7. Prison warden’s telephone
8. Gas chamber (exterior)
9. Electrocardiograph machine
10. Prisoner playing chess
11. Inmates’ name board
12. Prisoner sketching behind bars
13. Pistol storage
14. Prison gate
15. Rifle storage
16. Prison chapel
17. Visiting room
18. Prisoners transported by truck
19. Prioner reading
20. Prison guard
21. Jail cells with fan
22. Prison recreation ground
23. Guard dogs
24. Guards’ horses