by Jonathan Griffin
Alyse Emdur, Four Corners Books
“MY SISTER AND I could go to the beach,” writes the artist Alyse Emdur, “but our brother could not go with us.” That is because he was incarcerated at the Bayside State Prison, in Leesburg, New Jersey. Instead, the trio posed in front of a photograph of a tropical beach at sunset, two palm trees framing the glowing sky. A Polaroid photograph of the make-believe excursion, taken in the late 1980s, is included on the back cover of Emdur’s recent book, Prison Landscapes.
When she came across the picture many years later, the improbable scene caught Emdur’s attention. She began collecting similar pictures taken inside prisons. It is this collection, reproduced with the inmates’ names and places of incarceration, that constitutes the majority of this handsome book. Emdur was not, at first, concerned so much with the individuals posing as with the pictorial backdrops that they stood in front of. Her only access to these backdrops, however, was when they were pictured with prisoners standing in front of them. So she struck up correspondences with pen pals in prisons across the United States. (There are websites that make this easy: writeaprisoner.com; inmate-connection.com; friendsbeyondthewall.com.) At first, she used a pseudonym, Lee Lana.
Her introductory letter, a copy of which is reproduced in Prison Landscapes, is at once ingenuous and contradictory. She relates her family’s involvement in the prison system and encloses a copy of the Polaroid of herself with her brother. But she admits, too, that what she is really interested in is the scenic backdrops, even though she describes her project as “a book of portraits.” “Represent yourself,” she encourages her correspondents. All participants, she promises, will receive a copy of the book direct from the publisher. It is clear, right from the outset, that Emdur is attempting to allow for a number of different agendas in Prison Landscapes. The intentions of the tandem image-makers (that is to say the backdrop painters, the photographers and the subjects) are quite different from those of the artist. Emdur realizes, though, that she must tread carefully if she is not to seem crass, exploitative or self-interested. Nevertheless, she needs to take home the goods, or there will be no book.
It is these contradictions that give Emdur’s book an electric charge. Though she handles her material with due caution, she cannot defuse it, nor would she want to. For the most part the photographs of prisoners are reproduced without interference, the only captions being the name of the subject and the place of their incarceration. In some instances, prisoners have included a comment that they wish to accompany their image — often relating to their thoughts at the time the picture was taken. A few letters, selectively interspersed, indicate that these men and women understood exactly what their pictures were being used for, even if they were more interested in sharing with Lee Lana their pasts and hopes for the future. Emdur’s own photographs of backdrops also occur throughout, gatefolded so they do not interfere with the flow of the other pictures. (It is one of these, however, that is reproduced on the cover.) The book concludes with an interview between Emdur and Darrell Van Mastrigt, the painter of the cover image, about art made in prisons and the custom of painting backdrops for portraits.
While Emdur has made photographic work in the past she would not consider herself a photographer. More usually she makes drawings or videos; her work could be said to loosely relate to issues of self-presentation and self-empowerment. It is in this context that Prison Landscapes should be understood: it is not a piece of political polemic or social critique. One gets the impression that she does not know precisely what she wants to say with this material — or rather, that she does not consider this the appropriate forum tosay any one thing. This is not a criticism. While the book could prove frustratingly ambivalent to readers hoping for an addition to the cultural canon of prison activism, it succeeds as a nuanced, thoughtful artwork that raises — though doesn’t answer — difficult questions about the contextualization of marginal visual culture. The project is as much to do with Emdur’s self-appointed role as an archivist and a documentary photographer as it is with her views on prisons. Indeed, considering the multiplicity of voices fighting to be heard throughout the book, even within a single image, the author herself speaks quietly and chooses her words with care.
Emdur, therefore, never tells us what she really thinks about the photo backdrops, despite admitting, on the first page of her introduction, her childhood encounter with one of them. She does not say whether she considers them to be good art or quixotic folk curios, nor which are better than others. There is no indication that any photographs sent to Emdur were edited out of the book. Qualitative judgments, it seems, are somewhat beside the point, although this in itself raises a certain set of problems: is it not patronizing, of Emdur (and of us, the readers) to credit all the artists with an equal level of artistic success? The painters themselves were certainly striving for excellence in their work, but nobody could claim that they all achieved it. This dilemma is not unique to Emdur’s project; anyone interested in vernacular or Outsider art must grapple with similar issues. It is, perhaps, unfair to expect her to resolve them in a single book.
Instead, Emdur’s analysis tends toward the sociological, rather than the aesthetic. She acknowledges the backdrops’ sinister role as covert instruments of authority, and, implicitly, the disingenuousness of the prison authorities in allowing the prisoners to create these instruments — objects that actually fortify their own confinement — while framing the activity as a means of self-expression. Though never explicitly expressed, the implication throughout the book is that any self-expression, and autonomy in self-representation, is precious in prison, however it is come by. The photographs in Prison Landscapes are taken of prisoners, by prisoners, in front of pictures created by other prisoners. While the whole process takes place within strictly patrolled perimeters, the subjects find inventive ways to assert their own agendas in otherwise relatively powerless situations.
Photography is not freely permitted inside a prison. When a photograph is taken — by anyone — of a prisoner inside a visiting room, the sitters are required to position themselves in front of a backdrop installed specially for the purpose. Generally, cameras are banned in the prison itself; only when visitors come are pictures allowed, taken by volunteer prisoner photographers and sold back to them for two to four dollars a piece. If prisoners receive no visitors, they have no photographs taken of them. When Emdur first contacted prison officials to request permission to photograph the backdrops directly, she was refused.
Even as a child, Emdur realized that, “The painting behind us represented freedom, the exact opposite of the prison’s mission and the reality my brother was living.” As her collection grew for her book, she amassed an anthology of aspirational images: beach scenes were popular, but also mountain landscapes, nighttime cityscapes, and gardens. She discovered, however, that these backdrops were not only for the inmates’ benefit. Prison guards admitted to Emdur that the principal reason that photography is not allowed is that it might pose a security risk. They argue that any image that shows the location of surveillance cameras or mirrors, the size and placement of windows, the layout of rooms and so on could, potentially, be used by a prisoner to break free. Despite their escapist pictorial content, the prison landscapes are ultimately tools of institutional control.
Escapism, however, is only the most obvious, and perhaps least interesting, motivation evidenced within these photographs. Aside from beaches, many backdrops feature snow-capped mountains, waterfalls, and underwater scenes seemingly populated with every fish and mammal in the ocean. Nature, here, is synonymous with freedom. Class aspiration too is baldly expressed, in backdrops featuring castle gates, grand staircases, balconies, follies, picturesque gardens and libraries of leather-bound books. Female prisoners are more likely to smile, to take a shot at attractiveness despite the indignity of their orange prison garments. Most of the male prisoners confront the camera unsmiling, often standing at an angle with hands clasped in front. These are not the deadened, submissive faces of the police mug shot, but expressions of stoicism that seem to declare: here I am, this is what I have done, I’m not proud of it but neither will I shy away from it. The sentiment is described by Greg Chambers, an inmate of Minnesota Correctional Facility in Lino Lakes:
When I struck a pose I was thinking, how do I pose while incarcerated? I definitely didn’t want to smile, because I didn’t want people to think I’m okay with where I’m at. Basically I just took pictures to let my loved ones know I was alright.
In another, Jaime Estrada of Pelican Bay State Prison writes:
There have been very few times in my life that I was scared and this was one of them. My heart was racing. I haven’t seen my family for over 15 years. What will they think of me when they saw my picture? I don’t even know how to smile! It’s just not in me. I hope I don’t send the wrong message.
But send the wrong message he does. He may have felt like a terrified, self-conscious and recalcitrant son or brother, but his scowl and tattooed neck and face betray no hint of such vulnerability. Estrada’s comment reveals the gulf that exists between our interior selves and our exterior images and the inexactitudes of photographic self-representation, especially when one is standing in too-big clothes and squinting into the light.
Of course, we, the art-book-reading public, were never the intended audience for these pictures. The people that they address here are, more often than not, family and friends. Furthermore, their messages are necessarily relayed via the prisoner-photographers, so subjects cannot drop their emotional guards too low. Many attempt the bravado of gangster rappers: arms spread in front of gleaming luxury cars, or crouching as if part of a boy band or hip-hop crew. These are the portraits in which the subjects’ ambitions for the images stray farthest from our perception of them, and the images that reveal that someone can be in control of their own representation and, simultaneously, not in control at all. There are as many “wrong messages” in Prison Landscapes as there are right ones. The fierce tiger that appears ready to pounce and devour the prisoner posing in front of him; the heavyset man trying to look tough next to a cartoon Christmas gnome; the prisoner holding what must be a paper cut-out fish in front of an azure mountain lake. The necessity of posing in front of a backdrop forces, in many cases, the prisoners to participate in a pantomime not of their choosing. Every image has several authors, and those authors often seem to work at cross-purposes.
In Camera Lucida, Roland Barthes observes:
In front of the lens, I am at the same time: the one I think I am, the one I want others to think I am, the one the photographer thinks I am and the one he makes use of to exhibit his art. In other words, a strange action: I do not stop imitating myself.
Escapism, here, takes on an added significance: the subjects are not only simulating escape from their physical surroundings, but from themselves: their bodies, their social circumstances, their private weaknesses and personal failures. That their efforts are often as clumsy as certain of the painted backdrops here makes them, ironically, more human. The portraits compel for the same reason as the backdrops: because of their shortcomings, rather than their successes.
A fundamental — and problematic — assumption within the appreciation of folk art, self-taught art, or what is commonly termed “outsider art” is the idea that the intention of the artist is independent of the meaning of the artwork. In many cases, as with severely disabled artists or deceased artists who worked in isolation, their intentions are impossible for us to guess. It is, perhaps, unwise even to try. In other cases, as with many of the amateur artists in this book, we can infer their intentions but are delighted when the painting moves in another direction. (The slick sports car that comes out lumpen and soft, for example, or the wolf that ends up looking deranged.) We do not, it turns out, have the artist’s best interests at heart after all, no matter what we think.
The prisoners’ images in this book are starkly contrasted with Emdur’s own photographs taken inside prisons, discreetly gatefolded into the book so that it is in fact possible to flick through without seeing them at all. When unfolded, however, in size and clarity they are in an altogether different aesthetic league to the rest of Prison Landscapes. Apparently, certain governors eventually relented and allowed the artist into empty visiting rooms to document the photo studio backdrops directly. Emdur’s pictures are taken with a professional, large format camera and lighting, are evenly focused and flat in both aspect and demeanor. She adopts the now dominant language of artist-photographers such as Thomas Struth, Candida Höfer, and Louise Lawler, all of whom have cast their cool gazes on places — nuclear facilities, churches, museums — that are freighted with political and social significance.
Emdur’s training — her competence as an image-maker — therefore allows her to keep her cards close to her chest in these images. They are foremost documents rather than expressions. I am sure that this is just as she wants it. Perhaps this is the privilege of education — the learnt ability to control what other people see. Emdur does not disclose which paintings she likes best, nor does she reveal much about her relationships with any of her pen pals, except for a reproduction of the introductory letter that she sent out. When we do catch a glimpse of the artist, it is not by accident. In a couple of her photographs, the convex mirrors that allow guards to keep an eye on visiting room proceedings also reflect, in miniature, the figure of the artist going about her business as a conscientious documentarian. Between these and the Polaroid of the five-year-old Emdur standing in front of the ocean with her brother, we can piece together an identity that is much more cautious and inquisitive than the portraits that fill the rest of this book. A figure who, like most of us, prefers to observe than to be seen, to be on the outside looking in rather than inside looking out.
First published: Los Angeles Review of Books, June 5th 2013