New Criticals

In “Prison Landscape”, Alyse Emdur photographs visiting-room backdrops, painted scenes where the incarcerated take photos with friends and family. They are like plywood cutouts in theme parks, depicting idyllic scenes of the country or the city in simple bright colors, places of fantasy only existing in the imagination, not actual experience. A conscious effort is made to ensure that there is no evidence that this photo was taken in a prison—no doors, no cells, no surveillance cameras. By emphasizing this background that is an attempt to turn the fact of the wall into a trompe l’oeil of freedom, Emdur’s photos foreground the illusion, exposing it for the charade that it is.

One of the most precious and upsetting works is Mark Strandquist’s “Some Other Places We’ve Missed.” Strandquist asks prisoners a simple question: “If you had a window in your cell, what place from your past would it look out onto?” He then would try to render the fantasy into a photograph from something outside. Pocahontas Dam: “As I stare out of my window through the bars I can see The Dam…Our names mark the rocks…The Dam is always flowing no matter what happens…It never judges me and will always be there to welcome me back.” A hall: “My sister and I running halfway down the hallway and sliding the remaining of the way in our socks….This hallway is filled with much laughter and fun. No worries. I miss this place.” A street corner: “Take a picture of 27th Street street sign. This spot was special to me because it will always remind me if I continue living the street life I will be jail [sic.], institution, death.”  The camera: a proxy for eyes and memory, but also hope and regret. The photographer: a messenger that delivers light into and from the dark chamber.