Photography exhibit by Henry Hargreaves details prisonersGCO last meals

Last modified: Thursday, September 06, 2012
One decided his dinner would be a testament to gluttony: an enormous tray of Kentucky Fried Chicken, french fries and fried shrimp, topped off with a pile of strawberries.

Another opted for just dessert, eating two pints of ice cream. A third settled for even less: a single black olive.

In "No Seconds: The Last Meal on Death Row," photographer Henry Hargreaves has recreated 10 meals requested by former death row inmates in prisons across America. Hargreaves photographed not just the food they ate but also imagined table settings, from place mats to tablecloths to plates and silverware. The exhibit opens next week at Herter Gallery at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

Hargreaves, a New Zealand native now living in Brooklyn, N.Y., is a former fashion model who 10 years ago "decided to get on the other side of the lens," as he puts it. He's since built a reputation for photographing odd and quirky subjects - his website (www.henryhargreaves.com) shows an imitation iPad cooked in a deep fryer - that he hopes will "spark a conversation, maybe make you think about things a little differently," he said during a phone call last month from his home.

"No Seconds" was inspired by his discovery last year of a Wikipedia page about final meal requests from condemned prisoners. Reading about what the inmates sat down to eat gave him a new perspective on the topic, he said: "Suddenly it's a real person, it's not just a statistic or a name. This was someone's last meal - what did that request say about the person? I was interested in telling a story with food, and I thought this would be a good way of doing it."

Hargreaves bought the food, prepared the meals, arranged them on dishes, and then photographed them from overhead.

"I wanted [the photos] to show just what someone would have seen as they sat down to eat, wherever it might have been," he said.

Amid an abundance of fried entrees - chicken, bacon and eggs, grilled cheese sandwiches, potatoes - perhaps the strangest image is that of the solitary olive on a ceramic plate, a knife and fork at either side. This was the last meal that Victor Feuger, a Florida man, requested before he was put to death in Iowa in 1963 for kidnapping and murder.

John Wayne Gacy, the notorious mass murderer from Illinois who was executed in 1994, took the opposite tack, chowing down on a greasy meal that included an entire bucket of Kentucky Fried Chicken. Hargreaves presents this meal on a large aluminum tray, the chicken mounded with french fries, fried shrimp and strawberries.

Timothy McVeigh, executed in 2001 for the 1995 bombing of a federal building in Oklahoma City that killed 168 people, settled on two pints of mint chocolate chip ice cream for his last meal. And Ricky Ray Rector, put to death in Arkansas in 1992 for killing a police officer and another man, dined on steak, fried chicken, cherry Kool-Aid and pecan pie - telling prison guards, after he failed to eat his pie, that he was "saving it for later."

Price limit

In preparing his photos, which he first showed online earlier this year, Hargreaves limited his subjects to Americans on death row. Most were limited by state law to a meal not greater than $40 in value, with no alcohol permitted. He said his choices were partly motivated by his curiosity about why capital punishment is still practiced in the United States.

"As a foreigner, the death penalty was not something I was familiar with," Hargreaves said. "It did seem strange." At the same time, he added, "I'm not trying to make a statement about whether it's right or wrong. I do think it's something we should be more aware of. ... I think I'm trying to find a little bit of empathy for these [inmates], something that allows you to see them as human despite what they did."

Trevor Richardson, the curator of the Herter Gallery show, says he was intrigued by Hargreaves' photos when he read about them in a newspaper article earlier this year. He sees a disturbing juxtaposition between what he calls "the sheer banality of the meals themselves" and the harsh reality that consuming the food will be one of the last things an inmate does.

"Presumably, the food items chosen ... hold some appeal to the condemned person from a simple culinary/taste perspective," Richardson wrote in an email. "But might they also evoke memories of family, or childhood, and what are they thinking as they slowly consume and digest the final bite?

"It is a thought-provoking show and - perhaps on a certain level - one of the saddest and most poignant exhibitions I have ever arranged," Richardson said.

Going viral

Hargreaves initially posted nine photos - the Herter exhibit will have 10 - on his blog, where they soon began to attract attention, he said. "At some point I noticed they'd been reblogged 75,000 times." That attention led to exhibitions of the work, like the upcoming UMass show.

The exhibit is meant to be provocative, Hargreaves said, and the photos have sparked considerable comment. "I've had the whole gamut, everything from 'This is really horrible and you're sick' to just the opposite, people saying they really like what I've done. To me, getting comments is kind of a pat on the back, good or bad."

He's added a new photograph for the last meal of Teresa Lewis, the lone woman in the exhibit. Lewis was executed in Virginia in 2010 - the first woman that state had executed in almost a century - for arranging the murders of her husband and stepson to collect insurance payments. Her last meal included fried chicken, sweet peas, Dr Pepper and German chocolate cake.

As Richardson sees it, Hargreaves' photos inevitably raise questions about the morality and capriciousness of the death penalty.

Lewis' case, for instance, generated widespread opposition, including from novelist John Grisham, because of questions about her mental capacity and because she had not committed the murders herself. Some testimony at her trial indicated that one of the hired killers, Matthew Shallenberger, had masterminded the deaths of Lewis' husband and stepson. Shallenberger and the other killer, Rodney Fuller, were given life sentences rather than the death penalty.

"I think there is something psychologically jarring in the images that inevitably causes one to ruminate on the fact that in this country, significant numbers of people each year are legally killed by the state," Richardson said.

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.

"No Seconds: The Last Meal on Death Row" opens with a reception with photographer Henry Hargreaves Wednesday from 4 to 6 p.m. and will remain on view through Oct. 12 at the Herter Gallery at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.