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Antoine Ealy, Federal Correctional Complex, Coleman, Florida
You all know I’m a big supporter of Alyse Emdur and her six year project Prison Landscapes, so it was great to feature her work on Wired.com.
“My act as a photographer is not from behind the lens but as a collector of images,” says Emdur. “I see myself as a mediator. These are people who have had no relationship with the outside world so while Prison Landscapes might be a very small gesture, the people who chose to be involved in this project want to be seen; they have their own agency. They want the outside world to know they aren’t the criminals they are stereotyped as.”
Relatively late in the project, Emdur resolved to visit prisons herself to photograph backdrops at a wider angle. In the space of two weeks, she gained access to 10 prisons on the East Coast. Her photographs offer context to the portraits she had already collected. In informal interviews, Emdur was able to get the perspective of the prison administrations, psychiatrists, superintendents, guards – “people who enriched my understanding,” she says.
“Prison portraits are very intentionally framed to exclude the surroundings,” explains Emdur. “They are hiding what the visiting room actually looks like. For me it is very important to show the viewer, who maybe hasn’t been in a prison visiting room, the details, and to place the backdrops in a context.”
It’s gratifying when my interest in prisons overlap with wider issues of visual culture and with the curiosity of mainstream readers.
The article coincides with Emdur’s book Prison Landscapes, published by Four Corners, London is now available. Alyse Emdur is very grateful that Four Corners will donate books to each of the individuals whose portraits feature in the book.
Prison Visiting Room Portraits, An Interview with Alyse Emdur. (Prison Photography)
Up Against The Wall: Prison Snapshots. (New York Times)
Photobloggers have come out in force to deliver their tributes to photographers doing significant work. These sprawling congrats are congealing into a tasty list of practitioners who exhibit cunning, skill, bravado and novelty in their approach and product.
Colin Pantall began all these shenanigans fresh from a summer of non-blogging and sipping fines teas. He says these photographers are leading us toward “a brave new world.”
Joerg has listed the names put forward so far:
Some superb photographer and photomanipulators. I wholeheartedly agree with choices Broomberg & Chanarin and Geert van Kesteren who have cleverly worked with archives and cell phone wartime images respectively.
I’ve got six on my list.
I’ll be another to name Mishka Henner. I think his time has come. Bound to wind a few folk up, he at least steps forward to defend his use of satellite, GSV and Google Earth images. He’s forcing everyone past the unnecessary reverence we have for images as single art objects and imaginatively pointing out the visual cultures all around us.
Henner does not lazily appropriate and his next series (which I’ve seen snippets of on his iPhone) is a robust political critique of humans’ abuse of the environment. And then there is Photographers, a 10 minute montage looking at photographers on the silver screen. Surprising, fun, entertaining.
I also saw Rich and Poor at Pier24 recently and was left angered and energised; the best possible reaction to art.
Jim talked about his reasons for revisiting old work including the legendary Raised By Wolves with TIME’s Lightbox this week:
“The children in Raised by Wolves were living hard lives—lives that were leading to nowhere. So now, when I reheard a recording that Brandon the intern had found in some box, and I heard the voice of, lets say, Tweeky Dave, well that added something that would extend to the viewers experience of the project.”
It’s pretty ballsy to hand over the reigns to the intern! But great product.
Alyse Emdur‘s name on the list reflects my interest in prisons, but I was impressed by her Photograph A Recruiter before she got neck deep in the visual culture of incarceration. Emdur’s correspondence with hundreds of prisoners and their donated prints reveal a specific, a widespread, but a little seen genre of vernacular American photography.
Her book is just around the corner! My interview with Alyse.
Alixandra Fazzina is one of the least self-promoting documentary photographers I know. Her work about Somali refugees A Million Shillings – Escape From Somalia is one of the best pieces of social reportage from Africa in this century and the last. And the book is beautiful.
The Instagramer. I’m being contrary with the inclusion of Peter DiCampo on this list, but he is young, using Instagram, and less well known than other famous photographers such as Kashi, Stanmeyer and Pinkhassov making images with their phones.
No need to argue anymore; cell phones allow us to share images instantly and there is an inherent worth to that. Peter DiCampo represents that seismic shift we’ve yet to get to grips with. See his Everyday Africa project.
A woman hangs laundry in Takira, Uganda on May 29, 2012. © Peter DiCampo.
Another recent discovery, Tomoko Sawada is a self portrait specialist. I spent ten minutes in front of Recruit/Grey knowing that they were all images of her but still unwilling to accept it. She’s a grand manipulator in the quietest way; a refreshing tonic to Cindy Sherman.
David Adler has been collecting prisoner made portraiture since 2006.
Adler’s work is very similar to Alyse Emdur‘s Prison Landscapes (readers will know Emdur is a favourite of mine.) But in fact, Adler and Emdur approach the visual culture and the act of collecting the photos very differently. I’ll be publishing an interview with Adler shortly, but to summarise, Emdur is thinking about social justice whereas Adler is thinking about the economics of the system. Both consider the painted backdrops as significant contributions to American artistic production.
Adler thinks of his work as a theoretically infinite, open-source project, that anyone could take on. Conversely, Emdur considers her presentations as collaboration with each of her subjects.
More to come.
Meanwhile, if you’re in NYC, Adler’s exhibition Prisoner Fantasies: Photos from the Inside is showing at the Clocktower Gallery in Lower Manhattan, until the end of August. Also, you can read a brief interview with Adler, by Harry Cheadle for VICE.
[Yes, the visual similarity between this post and the last was intentional.]
Of the two dozen photographers in the show, only three had actual objects (Sye Williams’ darkroom prints, Jane Lindsay’s bottle caps and Deborah Luster’s tintypes). Given the cost and hassle of shipping, it was decided that the re-used Noorderlicht exhibition prints would not be returned.
I was given instructions to destroy all prints.
It occurs to me that a lot of people don’t talk about this aspect of contemporary exhibition-making. It’s not really sad to see them go, because they never belonged to anyone. They only belonged to the show. And besides, knowing they were to be destroyed, I put most of them up with double sided sticky tape, so there was no preserving them after that ultra-adhesive abuse anyway. Super-strong magnets are hardly kind to bare prints either!
We do plan to travel Cruel and Unusual (make Hester, Noorderlicht and I an offer!) and as such we’ll see shiny versions printed again.
Until then, think on these images of photogaeddon, wanton destruction and image massacre.
My choice of twelve female photographers – Jenn Ackerman, Araminta de Clermont, Alyse Emdur, Christiane Feser, Cheryl Hanna-Truscott, Deborah Luster, Britney Anne Majure, Nathalie Mohadjer, Yana Payusova, Julia Rendleman, Marilyn Suriani, and Kristen S. Wilkins – are a eclectic mix of artists with different approaches to photography in sites of incarceration. Among their works you’ll find fine art documentary, found photography, alternative process, painted photographs, collaborative portraiture, dreamy landscape, photojournalist dispatches and social activism.
Some ladies’ work I’ve featured before on Prison Photography; some are relatively new discoveries; others I met during Prison Photography on the Road; and a few are included in the ongoing Cruel and Unusual show at Noorderlicht.
Thanks to WIPNYC co-founders Amy and Cara Phillips for providing an avenue with which to disseminate photography that counters stereotypes and informs audiences of lives behind bars. Thanks also to Megan Charland for formatting the exhibition.
From my curatorial statement
In the past 40 years, America’s prison population has more than quadrupled from under 500,000 to over 2.3 million. This program of mass incarceration is unprecedented in human history. Women have born the brunt of this disastrous growth. Within that fourfold increase, the female prison population has increased eightfold. You heard right: women are incarcerated today at eight times the number they were in the early 1970s. Are women really eight times more dangerous as they were two generations ago?
Please, browse the gallery, bios and linked portfolios.
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)
I’m still in Los Angeles making PPOTR magic happen.
Artist, photographer and prison fangirl Alyse Emdur has been working with hundreds of U.S. prisoners on a collaborative study of visiting room portraits and backdrops (more on that to come.)
During her MFA show When I Get Out of Here, she projected Gary Boyd’s Body Talk video on the gallery wall.
The footage was shot on a prison owned video camera which was in the prison for an event. The footage was then smuggled out. Gary Boyd has since been released and has changed his name to Sol Amen Ra.
While we’re on the topic of body sculpting inside prisons, check out Arnold Schwarzenegger helping inmates weight train in the era before California banned weightlifting equipment in prisons – a ban, if I recall correctly, Arnold criticised as Governor.
In a modest way the project aims to offer students an alternative national stage to the one the which involves guns and death.
It is, perhaps, a more playful means to combat predatory army and navy recruitment practices … certainly more so than the raucous and confrontational pickets in Berkeley, California last year.
(Found via iheartphotograph)