In 2005, Alyse Emdur unearthed a photograph (above) of her visiting her older brother in prison. She recalls, even as a 5 year old, her confusion and discomfit with the tropical beach scene to her back.
To Alyse, these garishly coloured corners of the prison visiting rooms are analogous with commercial photo portrait studios, “If you weren’t familiar with prisons, you might think these were prom photos or made in community centres. They’re very ambiguous,” says Alyse.
Fascinated by the obscure and closeted mural works in prisons across the U.S., Alyse meditated upon them in her MFA grad show (she even commissioned a prison artist to paint a mural on parachute canvas). She is now bringing hundreds of authentic American prison visiting room portraits from her Prison Landscapes project together in a book to be released later this year.
Alyse contacted over 300 prisoners via prison penpal and dating websites. Just over 150 agreed to be part of the project.
In the past, I’ve argued that visiting room portraits may constitute the largest type of American vernacular photography not seen by the majority public. I’ve also noted how companies will manipulate these portraits and, at the request of the owner, photoshop out the prison environment. Photoshop “services” such as these are the post-production equivalent of the denial existent in the original works.
If these idyllic landscapes are about escape it might not just be in an emotional sense, “They are a security feature,” says Alyse. “The backdrops are there to control the type of imagery that is being exported out of the institution. To be specific, the administration doesn’t want images of the inside of the prison to circulate outside of the prison because the thinking is that those images could help an inmate escape. That’s what makes these images slippery and interesting; they also create an escape for the poser and for the [family member] who receives the photo.”
How or why does this discussion matter? Well, essentially these are images about control. Cameras are considered a security hazard by prison authorities. Prisoners have no opportunity to self-represent (bar some very exceptional prison photo workshops). After their mugshot, these visiting room portraits are the only chance America’s 2.3 million prisoners have to achieve something that approximates self-representation. These are highly mediated images and they are often a performance that belies the hardship of prison life.
Alyse and I talk about the regionalism of the backdrop murals; the dearth of research on this quirky and hidden aspect of American visual culture; and Alyse notes how the artistry of mural painting is disappearing as acrylic and enamel paint is replaced by large photo-printed screens.
Alyse Emdur (b. NJ, USA 1983) works with photography, video, research, social engagement, and drawing. Her work has been exhibited at Printed Matter and the Lambent Foundation in New York; the University of Texas Visual Arts Center in Austin; Bezalel University in Tel Aviv, Israel; the Lab in San Francisco; La Montagne Gallery in Boston; Laura Bartlett Gallery in London, England; Spacibar in Oslo, Norway; In Situ in Paris, France, and Kunststichting Artis in Hertogenbosch, Netherlands.
In Spring 2012, a book of her project Prison Landscapes will be published by Four Corners Books (London).
Download an interview with Niels Van Tomme published in the Fall 2011 Issue of Art Papers Magazine, here (PDF)
Download an excerpt of Prison Landscapes published in Issue 37 of Cabinet Magazine, here (PDF)