New book, Prison Landscapes, features images of a largely unseen part of prison life – the idealised backdrops used for taking photographs of inmates during visiting hours...
Published by Four Corners Books in the UK, the project is the work of Los Angeles-based artist, Alyse Emdur.
In 2005, Emdur came across a photograph of herself posing in front of a tropical beach scene while visiting her older brother in prison (shown below).
Since discovering the picture, Emdur has invited hundreds of American prisoners to send her photographs for inclusion in this collection (150 agreed to participate).
Robert Ruffbery, Atlanta
Charles Derrick Keller, Marion, Illinois
Antoine Ealy, Coleman, Florida
The backdrops, which range from sandy beaches and waterfalls, to mountain vistas and cityscapes, are often painted by inmates and used within the prisons as de facto portrait studios.
As inmates and visitors pose for photographs in front of these fantasy landscapes, they offer a brief form of escapism for both parties. The visitor is able to take home a picture of their loved-one, perhaps making the situation a little easier to bear.
But as Pete Brook notes on his excellent Prison Photography website, prisonphotography.org, "If these idyllic landscapes are about escape it might not just be in an emotional sense". He interviewed Emdur about the project earlier this year (read the full text here):
"The backdrops are there to control the type of imagery that is being exported out of the institution," she says. "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."
As Brook says, these are, in the end, images about control.
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Thanks for the post. I can't stop thinking about all of the implications in prision photography and especially those scenes from Emdur's book. Gonna go re-read Foucault's Discipline and Punish and Kafka's "In the Penal Colony."
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