It began with a Polaroid.
Artist Alyse Emdur was perusing a family photo album in 2005 and discovered a picture that seemed familiar. She saw herself at five-years-old, posing in front of a painted beach scene with her sister and older brother. But this wasn't your typical family portrait: it was taken at Bayside State Prison in Leesburg, New Jersey, where her brother was incarcerated. "It amplifed the sadness of visiting him," Emdur writes in the introduction to her book, "Prison Landscapes." "The painting behind us represented freedom, the exact opposite of the prison's mission and the reality my brother was living. My sister and I could go to the beach, but our brother could not go with us." From 1988 to 1998, her family would visit the different institutions where her brother, Bruce, was serving a sentence for car theft and possession of illegal substances. In each visiting room, she saw a new backdrop. These hand-crafted murals were produced by inmates and would depict various environments outside of the prison walls. Some were depictions of forest scenes or natural settings, while others showed whimsical worlds conjured from the inmates' imaginations. But for Emdur, these backdrops were pieces of art; a kind of folk art created by a population intentionally cut off from the world.
After discovering that photograph, Emdur invited prisoners to send her their own family photographs taken in front of prison visiting room backdrops, thus creating a community-generated project. After accumulating hundreds of portraits and documenting portrait studios in ten prisons, Emdur assembled her new book, "Prison Landscapes," which provides access to the interior world inhabited by the incarcerated.
Artbound caught up with Emdur to discuss the process of obtaining these images inside prisons, the micro-economies of incarcerated artists, and how the project has informed her own works.
Describe for us what it was like finding that photograph of your family with your brother in prison. How did the meaning of that photograph change for you over time?
When I first discovered this image, I was just an undergraduate student at the Cooper Union. I was home from college visiting my parents on winter break. Looking through family photo albums, anyone's family photos, and vernacular photography in general, is a deep pleasure of mine so it has become a sort of ritual. Each year I visit family, I look through a few albums. I look through the same albums over and over again. They never get old. At the time, all of the work I was making embodied a dual spirit of darkness and happiness. I traveled around the country-visiting Optimist clubs, photographed lottery winners as they received their checks, and built a seven-foot sign in the style of playful Las Vegas strip signage that declared, "Goodbye." Discovering this photograph was a revelatory moment for me because it summed up my entire art practice in one image. It was an "ah-ha" moment. The image also walked me back to the memories of visiting my brother in prison. I realized how much those experiences shaped my attitude toward the world. With all of this said, I was never and am still not interested in making art about myself. Although this image and my family history inspired the book, I used it as an entryway to discover other people's family photographs in front of visiting room backdrops. After untangling my own relationship to the image, I thought painted prison backdrops were jarring but kind gestures. Now I see them as a way for prisons to control the representation of prisons and prisoners.
When did you realize that these prison backdrops were going to be the focus of your own art?
After discovering this photograph, I sat with it and held it in my mind for nearly three years before realizing that prison visiting room backdrops could be the subject of a book. When I found the image, I instantly new that it was important but it took me a few years to unlock what it meant to me and what it could mean to others. In those three years, I corresponded with several inmates asking them to send me photographs of themselves in front of these backdrops. At the time, I saw the correspondence as research and did not realize that it would become a central part of the artwork. After receiving a few portraits from pen pals and realizing that the backdrops are in most state and federal prison visiting rooms, I knew someone had to uncover them.
How did you first go about documenting these backdrops?
My initial impulse was to make portraits of incarcerated artists in front of their own backdrops. After a few leads from pen pals, I proposed the idea to an incarcerated backdrop painter in Oregon, where I was living at the time. He was of course thrilled but the Warden quickly rejected the idea. This rejection helped me realize that collecting photographs of prisoners by prisoners is the best way to document these portrait studios. Aside from that, the portraits that I began receiving from pen pals were mind blowing. I didn't want my presence as an outside photographer to interfere with the way prisoners pose for photos so I decided that I would not be behind the camera.
After years of collecting the portraits, the framing of the images became more and more prominent. The inmates who volunteer to run the portrait studios are specifically instructed to not photograph the room beyond the edges of the backdrops. As a result, the portraits intentionally hide everything beyond the frame of the painted landscapes. Understanding that many viewers of my book, Prison Landscapes have never been in prison, I wanted to reveal more than the collected portraits allow. I ultimately photographed portrait studios in ten prisons with a large format camera. My goal for these images was to pull the camera back and to reveal sliver details- security cameras, mirrors, bars, and furniture. My photographs show the contrast between the hand-painted backdrops and the institutional architecture of the prisons.
Have you ever met the prisoners that were your pen pals in person?
Only once. In the summer of 2011, as the book developed, I went on a road trip to photograph portrait studios in 10 prisons. On the first day of this two-week prison tour, I met Darrell Van Mastrigt in State Correctional Institution -- Graterford in Pennsylvania. Darrell's painting, which I photographed later that day, is featured on the cover of "Prison Landscapes." Prior to the visit, we had been corresponding through the mail for about a year. Through our correspondence, I interviewed him about his experiences as an incarcerated backdrop painter. The interview is printed in the book. There was a delay waiting to get into the visiting room so we unfortunately only had one hour. As I walked down the steps to the narrow visiting room, I could slowly see Darrell's feet, legs, then chest, then a jumpsuit and his white arm with tattoos and I knew it was him. Then I saw his face. He had a big smile, long hair, and sweat dripping down his forehead. The volume was loud and the scent of body odor and cafeteria food filled the room. After selecting snacks from a wall of vending machines -- Darrell had Doritos and a Mountain Dew, and I selected plain Lays potato chips and a water -- we felt instantly at ease and thankful for the hour. We had so many questions for one another -- there was not a single break in conversation. I was so engaged in our conversation that most of the activity in the visiting room fell out of my periphery.
Directly after the visit, I went to the car in the parking lot to bring in the camera equipment -- a Toyo field camera and strobe lights -- back in after visiting hours. I met the Public Information Officer in the lobby before going through security a second time. Entering the prison as a prisoner's visitor and then again as a photographer was alarming. When I went in as a visitor, no one working knew I would be back as a photographer an hour later. As photographers, prison guards suddenly seemed to think I was entitled to more respect.
What interested you about the social interactions that would happen in those prison visiting rooms?
Prison visiting rooms are unlike any other space in the prison. They are clean and sanitized and intended to be the face of the prison for the public. They are also spaces of emotional and intimate meetings -- a mother who drove 20 hours to see her son, a child meeting his dad for the first time, someone's first visit in over a decade. In the visiting room there is a heightened understanding that visiting hours are a sacred and often joyful time for everyone receiving visits.
You've mentioned the micro-economies of the prison artists. What do you see in their works that you related with? What was different than the processes that you employ to make art?
Backdrops, murals, portraits, tattoos, calligraphy, greeting cards, and gifts are the most popular visual art forms in prisons. In the artwork of prisoners, I see an attempt to escape and meaningfully connect with one another and with people on the outside. My work is also about connecting. The aim of the book was to humanize prisoners, give inmates an opportunity to represent themselves and to be seen by the outside world. It was also to reveal the extent of control prisons have over the representation of America's prison population but on a personal level, it was a chance for me to connect with other people who have visited loved ones in prison and who posed in front of these backdrops. So although our artwork is very different, we share this common desire.
'Prison Landscapes' Book Launch is tonight, Tuesday, January 29th, 8-10 p.m. at Human Resources in Los Angeles' Chinatown.