This Week In Photography Books – Alyse Emdur

by Jonathan Blaustein

The following anecdote is hypothetical. I am in no way claiming it to be true; only instructive. These things do happen, though. And mistakes can be costly.

I was in Amsterdam the other week. Such a great city. There are things there, certain things, that are legal. Things that might be illegal elsewhere. The great state of Colorado has also legalized some of the things to which I refer, but in the United States, Federal law still considers such things verboten.

I enjoyed the opportunity to sample the legal wares in Amsterdam. It’s fun. But I would never, ever take any of those things away from Amsterdam. Like on an airplane. Never, ever would I be that stupid. Leaving town at Schiphol, my friend and I actually saw a poor sap who thought he could get away with it. Bad news. I’m smarter than that.

It was so cold in Holland that I had on every piece of clothing I’d brought. Three sweaters, topped by a down vest, and then a leather jacket. Always, the leather encased my body like a cow-ish second skin, futily trying to keep out the wind. The jacket’s zipper got stuck on our last day in town, trapping the layers below. I only managed to fix it minutes before going through security, flustered. I flew back to London, and then left the next day for the United States.

So imagine my surprise when I reached into my vest pocket on the tube towards Heathrow, and found a tiny bag of something that would be considered illegal in the UK. It was in my possession the entire time, and I was blissfully unaware. (Again, this never happened.) But if it had happened, can you imagine what I might have been thinking?

I closed my eyes, and saw it clearly. The arrest in the airport. The lightbulb dangling from the ceiling above me as I was harangued in Dutch, asking why I would be so foolish. Then, the trial and sentencing. Ultimately, I’d end up in jail.

People like me don’t go to jail. I’m educated, middle-class, from a good family. I don’t even know anyone who is incarcerated. (Which is statistically unlikely, as there are nearly 2.3 million people behind bars in the US, as I hinted at in last week’s column.) But not me. It couldn’t happen to me. Right?

As my “fictitious” example proves, though, stupid mistakes happen. As I leaned against the train wall, I thought about how it would feel to not see my wife and children again. How would I tell them I’d been so careless, and was now trapped in a cell, unable to support them, or give them kisses and hugs? What would my wife say? How old would my baby daughter be before I saw her again? My pulse raced, and I came very close to crying. Which would have been a weird thing to do in public, but no one was paying attention to me anyway.

Fortunately, even in this “farcical” anecdote, I got away with my “crime.” Nobody knew what I had done, and whatever evidence was left, after I had munched a bit, ended up in an airport garbage bin. I might have watched a janitor empty the receptacle, just in case. The evidence, were we to call it that, would now be buried beneath hundreds of tons of English trash.

I was lucky. (Again, never happened.) But many people aren’t. Our jails are overcrowded, with so many victims burned in the wreckage of our mindless Drug War. As many prisons are privatized, there is a financial incentive to keep them that way. Some folks have gotten behind this issue with all their might, like fellow blogger Pete Brook, but I’m just visiting for the day.

Artists have also given to the cause. I’m thinking here of Alyse Emdur, the photographer and writer behind the amazing book “Prison Landscapes,” published by Four Corners Books in… you guessed it…London. I had no idea what lay beneath the plastic when I unwrapped this one, and what a surprise it was; among the smartest and most creatively powerful books I’ve come across in some time.

Ms. Emdur’s brother spent time in a New Jersey prison when she was a youth, so she’s lived with the reality of incarceration’s impact. (As opposed to my bourgeois fantasies.) She knew that in prison, all photographs are taken against painted backdrops- no realistic details allowed. (I only know of such photographic stylings from Jersey Bar Mitzvahs, not lockups.)

The book opens with an excellent description of the project, through which Ms. Emdur, via a pseudonym, became pen pals with inmates around the US, and had them send her photos of themselves, set against a number of paintings. They’d be absurd if they weren’t so poignant. Rarely is art this earnest, while still being gripping.

The book includes letters written by prisoners, including some that were were scanned, to show the penmanship. (Do we still use that word?) There are also photos that Ms. Emdur has taken of the backdrops in prisons, and the use of an artist’s good camera and formal composition makes a fantastic complement to the personal photos of hulking or average looking men, and gussied-up or plain-looking women.

There is also an interview at the end with a prison painter who did the cover image, taken from the State Correctional Institution in Graterford, Pennsylvania. If I can convince someone to let me keep this book, I will forever use the interview as inspiration to my students in the future. You want to know why art matters? Prisoner Darrell Van Mastrigt will tell you. (That name sounds Dutch. You know I love to bring these articles back around.)

If you’re a thinking person who has curiosity about the world, you should consider buying this book. It is the perfect example of photography showing us what we would not otherwise be able to see. I have no idea how many of these people committed heinous crimes, and “deserve” to be where they are. Whatever they’ve done, they’re people with families and friends. Their plight helps us realize that things are always more complicated than we’d like to think.

Bottom line: Brilliantly constructed book with an ambitious agenda

To Purchase “Prison Landscapes” Visit Photo-Eye

Full Disclosure: Books are provided by Photo-Eye in exchange for links back for purchase.

Books are found in the bookstore and submissions are not accepted.

 

Jonathan Blaustein

There Are 1 Comment On This Article.

  1. Interesting, insightful amalgam of reality and fantasy- from an environment where both can be elevated to the max (and love that front cover)!