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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.]

In the past when I have discussed prison Polaroids, I have said they are perhaps one of the more significant subsets of American vernacular photography, and that they are not easily found online and that, due to their absence, our perception of prisons and prison life continues to be skewed.

Well, times change and that position now deserves correction. I have noticed a few collections coming online recently. Not least the Polaroids from Susanville Prison on the These Americans website. (Also, check out the new PRISON subsection of the site.)

Online, I have identified some increase in the number of contemporary prison visiting room portraits and, as in the case of These Americans, collections of older, scanned images.

I would suppose that many Facebook users have scanned visiting room portraits and added them to profiles but, only visible to friends, those social network image files have not been reproduced for public consumption or commentary. We might think of Facebook photos and albums as digital versions of the mantlepiece, i.e. seen only by close friends and family.


“Prisoner-complicit” portraits (for want of a better term) are taking up a lot of my thoughts currently.

Yesterday, I had a workshop with the #PICBOD students at Coventry University, in which I assigned readings on Alyse Emdur’s visiting room portrait collection, prison cell phones as contraband, prison cell phone imagery as cultural product, a new Tumblr In Duplo that compares publicly available mugshots with publicly available Facebook profile pictures, and the racket that underpins the posting and removal of mugshots to the searchable web.

Particularly with cell-block-cell-phone images, we should anticipate a glut of prisoner-complicit photos in which prisoners – to a greater degree – self represent.

We should realise that this is the first time in modern history that prisoners have presented themselves to the internet and thus permanently to the digital networks of the globe. My hunch is that this may be significant, but really, it’s too early to tell.

We can note that in this video, most of the images seem to originate from the same cell phone camera in the same prison. We might surmise there is no epidemic of illicit and smuggled images yet. To further this inquiry, I hope to get some information from the maker of said video.

In the mean time, I’ve been in touch with Doug Rickard who administers These Americans as well as the wonder-site American Suburb X. I asked him about his recently published Susanville Prison Polaroids:

Any idea who took them? (any marks/prison-stamps on verso?)

Probably a visitor or another inmate?  I have a set (10 or so) of the main inmate (“Johnny”) that you see in many of the “Susanville” single poses, posed with “Brown Sugar” (his girlfriend/wife) and his son “Champ”, a boy that grows from 1-3 years old in the various pictures (see below).

What years do you think they span?

I can only find one date, 10-24-80.  You would think that they were 90’s, but for sure, it says 80.

What makes this collection so fascinating to me is that the operator(s) appears to have had free reign of cells, tiers and the yard to make these single and group portraits. One of the PICBOD students at Coventry today wondered where their supply of Polaroid film came and then to where the images were eventually dispersed outside the prison.

We could only conclude that this prisoner and his group of friends had special privileges and access. From all of my research into (vernacular) prison photography – specifically prisoner-made photography – this sort of arrangement/privilege does not exist in American prisons today.


– – – – – – – – – – – – –

Thanks to Peg Amison for the tip.

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)

“Prison Polaroids: A Dispersed Portrait of American Life”

I was speaking to Sheila Pinkel recently about photography within prisons. She said only once had she been inside a prison with a camera of her own. We shared wonder at those photojournalists who through luck or nous gain access within US sites of incarceration.

Sheila explained that photography was conducted in the visiting rooms. Standard practice is for a correctional officer or fellow inmate to operate a Polaroid camera and sell the Polaroids at $2 each.

Imagine those Polaroids gathered together and the dialogue they’d rouse as a collection. But this portrayal of America is dispersed, and its dialogue is absent.





Dr Maria Kefalas, Assistant Professor of Sociology at the University of Chicago noted the collection and display of Prison Polaroids in Promises I Can Keep, a book about mothers’ poverty in the US:

In the course of Kefalas’s fieldwork she was invited into more than a dozen living rooms that displayed a “Prison Polaroid”, sometimes held to the wall by a thumbtack or tucked into a framed family portrait on the television set. Prisoners, she learned, can have these taken for only (sic) a few dollars at the prison commissary and usually pen cheerful descriptions such as “Happy Birthday” or “I love you” on the back. When family members come to visit, the commissary photographer will, for a fee, commemorate the occasion with a keepsake Polaroid. One mother showed Kefalas a photo album of Polaroid photographs taken in the prisons’ visiting area  – each commemorating one of the few times her daughter and her child’s father had been in the same room together over the course of the six years old’s life. the photos typically feature the inmate in his fluorescent orange department of corrections jumpsuit against a backdrop of a tropical beach scene, perhaps to give the illusion to the loved ones back home that their father is not in prison, but taking a much needed vacation.

San Quentin

San Quentin

San Quentin

San Quentin

After some digging I found this account:

In the processing room there is an inmate store where one can buy articles made by inmates and also buy these cards for $2, good for a snapshot of you and your friend taken in front of this large poster of a waterfall in the woods. I got one of these cards and when my friend and I went to get our picture taken I asked if we could have the dining room and everybody in it in the background. This was a big no-no, as people might be recognized in the photo. I didn’t know. We had our picture taken by an inmate with a Polaroid camera who later passed out the photos to the different tables. It turned out real nice.

San Quentin

San Quentin

Visitors are prohibited from bringing their own cameras or phones to the majority of US correctional facilities. Frequently the visitor buys two, one for the mantelpiece at home and one to return to the inmates cell. But there is no negative – just as there is no album. The Polaroids are dispersed across a nation. I think it would be fascinating to such Polaroids together.

Santa with VVGSQ members and supporters. San Quentin Prison visiting room - December 18, 2005. The VVGSQ has always supported the San Quentin Christmas Toy Program with toy donations as well as by running the program each year. The Warden has authorized the VVGSQ to sponsor this program and the group purchased the "Santa" suit, beard and wig that is used for an appearance of Santa to the children each year at the visiting room. The program benefits all the children who come to visit family at San Quentin during the Christmas season. Started in 1988, December 2008 will be the 20th year the program has been giving toys to the children who visit San Quentin.

Santa with VVGSQ members and supporters. San Quentin Prison visiting room - December 18, 2005. The VVGSQ has always supported the San Quentin Christmas Toy Program with toy donations as well as by running the program each year. The Warden has authorized the VVGSQ to sponsor this program and the group purchased the "Santa" suit, beard and wig that is used for an appearance of Santa to the children each year at the visiting room. The program benefits all the children who come to visit family at San Quentin during the Christmas season. Started in 1988, December 2008 will be the 20th year the program has been giving toys to the children who visit San Quentin.

In piecing together this online group of images, I found it difficult to come across images. This does not surprise me.

In what circumstances do people scan their Polaroids of a prison visit for online upload? Just a few; friends & family with blog updates; purveyors of the macabre; journals of the death-row inamtes; inmate support groups and children’s rights organisations.

Please alert me to any other sources.


This is not a Polaroid but it is an image I came across here, with the enlarged image here. I had to include it. I challenge readers to find a better photographic portrait. The adult fights back tears and the child is solemn. Standing for the photo – for pride and for necessity – is a struggle for the father. The personalities are so strong, I wonder what words they have spoken to one another. Surely, the father’s outward show of emotion is typical of the sadness adults bear when behind bars, away from their children. I have no children. I can’t begin to know, even by comparison. These two portraits would excel as individual shots; to put them together is to light a firecracker under the seat of emotive curiosity.

Father and Son

Father and Son

I also found this image on Flickr, which has a stark backdrop by comparison.

Jail Visit?

Jail Visit?


How about that as a potent exhibition just waiting to come together? Millions of Prison Polaroids in frames & drawers; homes & cells across America. The dispersed portrait of incarcerated Americans could be assembled in one place. The scale would be overwhelming and the juxtapositions endless. Let me know if the notion intrigues you as much as it intrigues me.


Hailey, 2, reaches out for a quarter in her fathers hand, Shane Macleod, while her mother Danielle Macleod stares out from the table. Each visitor is allowed to bring $20 of quarters for the vending machine and nothing else. Shane, like all of the inmates in the visiting room must ask his wife and daughter to buy certain snacks, as he is not allowed near the vending machines. During the visits, Shane says, “There is just not a lot to talk about after a while, you can only beat a subject to death for so long.” The couple married four years ago outside of prison, and Shane says, “Prison just really messes up your life.”


Hailey Macleod, 2, look outs across the table at her father, Shane Macleod, and his outstretched hand. Shane was incarcerated two months prior for bank robbery. Shane says. “It gets really stressful sometimes, to have my wife and daughter away from me.”

Elyse Butler repeat-visited New Hampshire State Prison in 2005. She was working as an intern staff photographer at the Concord Monitor in Concord, New Hampshire. The goal of the assignment was to capture the dynamics of relationships in the prison visiting room. Butler documented the behaviours of those within the room; “how these couples, families, and friends interact with each other when they have only a small amount of monitored time to spend together.” I asked a couple of questions.

How did you get access?

In order to get access into the prison we [Concord Monitor] had to contact the PR department and go through a process of paperwork and I had prison officers watching me at all times when I was in the visiting room.

What reactions did the work receive?

After the piece was done we got a great reaction from inmates and families in the visiting room. They were touched to have their time documented with their loved ones.


Heather Metcalf and Mark Vangordon hold hands at table 19 in the visiting room of New Hampshire State Prison. Vangordon is imprisoned for sexual assault and has been in the for a year. Metcalf says, “Not having him home is the hardest part.” When she is not visiting she waits for his letters to hear how he’s doing. During a visit, they are only allowed to have a 15 second embrace at the beginning and end of each visit and otherwise they are only allowed to hold hands above the table.


Lori Tasney and Chris Lang look into each others eyes as Marilyn and Daniel Haldeman hold each other at the end of a visit. Tasney and Lang have been dating for two years and plan to marry when he gets out. His current parole date is set for 2008. Lang was imprisoned for robbery in January 2005. Tasney visits twice a week, which is the most time any inmate is allowed visitors, but says “I would visit every day if I could.”


Mark Langlais plays cards with his brother, inmate Alphee Langlais (right) and his son, inmate Eric Langlias (left) while a mother gives her son one last touch at the end of a visit. This is the first time Alphee and Mark have seen each other since 1996. Mark claims, “Alphee’s been in here since his hair lost its color.” The family was estranged a long time ago, but they claim prison has brought them closer together. Eric was admitted for assault and Alphee was admitted on a parole violation following a prior sexual assault crime. Alphee carries around his inmate request slip as if its a trophy and cried when he finally spoke on the phone with his brother Mark. “This visit has been really special to me, ” Alphee claimed. Eric and his father always fought but no that he is on medication and his father is in counseling, Eric says “it is the closest we’ve ever been … I have always loved my father. I have always wanted him around.”


An inmate and his visitor share a last kiss and 15 second embrace, along with three other couples also saying their goodbyes, at the end of a visit. They started dating 5 months ago, only a month before he went to prison, and she says, “If he ends up having a long sentence, we probably won’t stay together.” He was admitted on a parole violation after an original conviction for multiple robberies and larceny. She says, “I come usually once a week. I hate coming here.”


Elyse Butler is represented by Aevum Photos. She is one of the hardest working and posting photographers in the business. She previously won College Photographer of the Year Award in 2004 for her documents of the porn industry. She has also photographed the debutante activity of La Jolla. I’d like to hear an interview between Butler, Lauren Greenfield and Wendy Marijnissen on the topic of female identity.

Butler did some nice portraiture in South America, but my favourite project of hers is “From Pond to Purse” which follows the trade of alligator products. Be sure to read Butler’s information on the project at her site in the ‘passion’ category.


prisonphotography [at] gmail [dot] com


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