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Across the United States, natural darkness is an endangered resource. East of the Mississippi, it is already extinct; even in the West, night sky connoisseurs admit that it's quicker to find true darkness by flying to Alice Springs, Australia, than traveling to anywhere in the Lower Forty-eight.

Ever since the nation's first electric streetlight made its debut in Cleveland, on April 29, 1879, the American night has become steadily brighter. In his new book, The End of Night: Searching for Natural Darkness in an Age of Artificial Light, Paul Bogard aims to draw attention to the naturally dark night as a landscape in its own right—a separate, incredibly valuable environmental condition that we overlook and destroy at our own peril.


Poster designed by Tyler Nordgren, author of Stars Above, Earth Below: A Guide to Astronomy in the National Parks.

Venue took the opportunity to visit Bogard in his office on the campus of James Madison University, in Harrisonburg, Virginia, to learn more about nocturnal America and its dark skies—and what we have lost by dissociating the two.

Our conversation touches on the difficulty of measuring and preserving such an ephemeral quality, as well as the ecological and health consequences of endless artificial light, with speculative detours into evolutionary shifts in human vision and the possibility of preserving Las Vegas (the brightest pixel in the world in NASA photographs) as a "light pollution park."

• • •


The Bortle scale was originally published in Sky & Telescope magazine in 2001. It classifies the darkness of skies from point of view of an astronomer, ranging from 1 ("an observer's Nirvana!") to 9, in which "the only celestial objects that really provide pleasing telescopic views are the Moon, the planets, and a few of the brightest star clusters." This illustration of the scale comes via Stellarium.

Nicola Twilley: Darkness is easy to overlook, if you’ll excuse the pun. How did you go about structuring the story of such a familiar, yet intangible quality?

Paul Bogard: People think they know darkness, and that they experience darkness everyday, but they don’t, really. That’s one of the reasons I borrowed the Bortle scale for the table of contents. I think John Bortle’s point, when he created this tool for measuring the darkness of skies, was that we have no idea what darkness really is. We think night is dark—full stop, end of story. But, on the Bortle scale, cities would be a Class 9—the brightest. Most of us spend our nights in what he would call a 5 at best, or more likely a 6 or 7. We rarely, if ever, get any darker than that.

Until the coming of electric light, people experienced a darkness that Bortle would classify as 2 or 3, every night. What I tried to do in the book is to show that difference, by working my way down from places that are bright to those that are less bright, but also by talking to people who are living and working in those places.


Left: Winter constellations in a Bortle Class 4 or 5 sky. Right: The same constellation panorama in an urban, Class 8 or 9 sky. Illustrations by John Bianchi from Exploring the Night Sky by Terence Dickinson, Sky & Telescope, February 2001.

Twilley: It’s interesting that, in order to see the nuances in darkness, we need to measure and name it. It was certainly a revelation to me to read in your book that twilight has three stages—civil, nautical, and astronomical, with civil being when cars should use headlights, nautical meaning that enough stars are visible for navigational purposes, and astronomical referring to the point at which the sky is dark enough for the faintest stars to emerge. Previously, I had thought of twilight as a single condition on the light-to-dark spectrum, rather than a multiplicity.

Bogard: For sure. For me, one of the reasons why identifying different depths of darkness is so important is that we don’t recognize that we’re losing it, unless we have a name to recognize it by. It’s also a way to talk about what we might regain.

That’s also what the National Parks Service Night Sky team, who I describe in the book, is trying to do with their sky quality index. If you’re charged with preserving darkness as natural resource, unimpaired for future generations, then you need to be able to put a number on the level of darkness. You need to be able to see and measure any losses before you even know what you’re trying to protect.


A member of the Night Skies team setting up the wide-field CCD camera that the National Parks Service uses to measure light pollution, at Homestead National Monument, Nebraska.

Twilley: It’s astonishing to read the description of a Bortle Class 1, where the Milky Way is actually capable of casting shadows!

Bogard: It is. There’s a statistic that I quote, which is that eight of every ten kids born in the United States today will never experience a sky dark enough to see the Milky Way. The Milky Way becomes visible at 3 or 4 on the Bortle scale. That’s not even down to a 1. One is pretty stringent. I’ve been in some really dark places that might not have qualified as a 1, just because there was a glow of a city way off in the distance, on the horizon. You can’t have any signs of artificial light to qualify as a Bortle Class 1.

A Bortle Class 1 is so dark that it’s bright. That’s the great thing—the darker it gets, if it’s clear, the brighter the night is. That’s something we never see either, because it’s so artificially bright in all the places we live. We never see the natural light of the night sky.


New York 40º 44' 39" N 2010-10-13 LST 0:04, photo illustration by Thierry Cohen as part of the Villes Eteintes series, via The New York Times. Cohen photographs major cities at night, digitally manipulates them to remove all lights, and then inserts a starry night sky from somewhere with much less light pollution on the same latitude, to create an image that shows us what New York City or Sao Paulo would look like under the Milky Way.

Geoff Manaugh: There are a few popular urban legends about the extent to which people no longer experience true, natural darkness. One is that, even though telescopes sell really well in New York, no one has seen a star over Manhattan since 1976 or something like that. The other one, which I have to assume is also at least partially an exaggeration, is that, after the Northridge earthquake in 1994, the L.A.P.D. was flooded with worried phone calls because people were seeing all these mysterious lights in the sky—lights that turned out to be stars.

Bogard: I’ve heard that one, too—that people were seeing the Milky Way for the first time, and they didn’t know what it was.

Those stories make me think of a couple of things. While I was writing the book, I went to Florence, on the trail of Galileo, and they still have two of his four telescopes. An astronomer there had this amazing line that he told me, which was that 400 years ago, in Florence, everyone could see the stars, but only Galileo had a telescope. Now, everybody has a telescope, but nobody can see the stars.

That really speaks to that New York legend. Telescope sales continue to be good, astronomy books continue to be published, and there are sky-watching apps on your phone. People are interested in the night sky. But we can’t really see any of it.


Los Angeles 34º 06' 58" N 2012-06-15 LST 14:52, photo illustration by Thierry Cohen as part of the Villes Eteintes series, via The New York Times.

The other thing it reminds me of is a guy I met in Paris, who told me that he thinks that, for the amateur astronomer, the most important instrument is not the telescope, but the automobile, because you have to have a car to drive somewhere dark enough to see anything.

Twilley: At the start of the book, you differentiate between darkness and night. Is it just that the two are no longer synonymous, or were they ever?

Bogard: It’s a good question. They’re so obviously intertwined, but it seemed to make sense to differentiate them or to specify one or the other. Night, obviously, in many places, is no longer really dark, or at least not naturally dark. In that sense, you can’t say that night means darkness. They’re not synonymous anymore. Sometimes I think that what makes night night, what makes night special, and what I love about it, is more than darkness. It is light, whether it’s natural light, like candles, or beautiful artificial light. A lot of electric lighting is really quite beautiful now.

Artificial lighting has meant a lot of really good things, arguably. We are able to extend the day into the night, which means that we can keep working, we can pursue our hobbies, we can go out to dinner, we can entertain—we can party all night long! We can do all these things that we like to do, that night has become known for. But there are other things that we have lost through this process of nocturnalization.



Landmarks in our short history of artificial street lighting include gas lamps (these arrived in New York City in 1827, with each one having to be lit by hand), and arc-light moontowers (several cities experimented with these in the late 1800s, but Austin, Texas, is the only place to still use them today).

It’s not really my thrust in the book, but I guess what I’m saying is that, if that’s all that night is, and we have lost so many of these other qualities of night, whether it’s quiet or darkness or solitude, then I think the night that we are experiencing now is really a lessened version of what it could be.

Night has a lot of qualities beyond darkness or lack of darkness—things like nocturnal sounds and smells. Those sensory things have more to do with night, for me. I’ve always had that sense that, at night, the world reduces in size and fury and sound and we start to feel not so overrun by everything. At night, that’s how I feel—free, to pursue my writing and reading or whatever. We let go of those burdens that the day holds. Those sorts of things mean that night is much more than just darkness. Yet darkness itself has so much importance alone, too, for human health and ecological health.


This Sunforce 82156 60 LED Solar Motion Light promises "added security," "powerful detection," and "peace of mind."

Manaugh: People also assume that darkness is inherently dangerous, yet you show how the connection between light and security is often a false promise.

Bogard: Exactly. Historically, that connection is really interesting. The state really encouraged light, because officials felt as though they could control a well-lit city better. Illumination was conflated with the power of the state, going back to Louis XIV, the Sun King, who decreed that candles should be hung in the streets, to demonstrate his might by banishing dark. In the years before the French Revolution, for many Parisians, public street lighting stood for tyranny. Oil-lamp smashing was a regular thing.

Ironically, what has happened now is that we have so much light that we can no longer see. We’re blinded—sometimes literally, by the brightness and glare of our security lighting—but also metaphorically, which is to say that when we light everything up, there is really no reason to look over and notice something, and say, “Wow, that’s a weird thing.”

When everything is so brightly lit, why should we look? It’s light, so it’s safe, so we switch off. And, while no one is looking, we’ve actually made life easier for the bad guys. Some studies even show that criminals actually prefer well-lit areas. I had several policemen and security consultants tell me that criminals are as afraid of the dark as we are. They don’t want to go in the dark. The light makes them feel safe, just as it does us.


Centurion Security Lighting Kit, via.

The other thing is that, physically, so much light makes it hard for our eyes to see. We don’t adapt from bright to dark quickly, so if we look toward the light, we can’t see anything else, and then most street lighting is incredibly badly designed and actually reduces contrast.

Sure, some lighting is helpful, in terms of safety and security. But we are not safe or secure simply because of lights. We are safe and secure when we are conscious of our surroundings. Most of our security lights are a huge waste of money and energy.

It’s a difficult issue. The entire third chapter is all about safety and security. I spent a lot of time on it, because the minute you start talking about light pollution, or the importance of darkness, people’s first response is, “Yeah, but we need light for safety and security.” It touches a nerve. I would just say that we don’t need all this light for safety and security. We use way more than we need, and it isn’t making anybody any safer.


Civil Twilight Design Collective won Metropolis' Next Generation 2007 contest for their lunar-resonant streetlight system, which would brighten and dim in response to ambient lighting levels.

One thing I’d say is that our eyes are amazing organs. Given the chance to adjust to darkness, we can see quite a bit and see fairly well. I would imagine that if you got rid of wall-packs and security lights and so on, you could rely on more subtle lighting design in crosswalks, stairwells, and doorways. A couple of the lighting designers I spoke to were very excited about responsive lighting.

For example, I spoke with a woman in Boulder, Colorado, whose thing was that putting lights on poles is ridiculous, and that, instead, we should have step-lights at foot level that get triggered with a motion detector. Another guy I talked with was mapping the night geography of Paris, with the idea that you could match the lux level of street lighting to the level of activity.

Twilley: There seem to be significant disparities in the quality of different cities’ nightscapes. In the book, you engage in some comparative darkness tourism in London and Paris, and London comes across as a completely wasted opportunity, in terms of lighting.

Bogard: I thought so. I’ve noticed again and again that cities will spend all this money on making themselves pretty to draw visitors, and then they having glaring light all over the place. At night, they are as ugly as every place else.


Notre-Dame de Paris illuminated at night, by Atoma.

In Paris, the lighting is designed to make the buildings beautiful at night. In London, and really all over the United States with very few exceptions, much of the lighting is just a big light shining on a building. You can see it, sure, but it’s not really very beautiful.

Manaugh: Speaking of darkness tourism, I just noticed a book called Night Walks on the bookshelf behind you, and it reminded me of something I read about the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Apparently, Coleridge would take massive walks in the middle of the night. He would show up at Wordsworth’s house at 3 a.m., and they would head out into the Lake District together, talking and walking beneath the stars. It made me wonder if there are—such as night walking—lost practices of darkness, so to speak, through which people once pursued certain experiences defined by the absence of light.

Bogard: I have always loved the experience—wherever I’ve been living—of going out walking at night, usually at around eleven-ish. Nobody is out, for the most part. You can look through windows into people’s houses, if you want to, which is sort of like an Advent calendar thing. Everything looks a little different, somehow. It’s just quieter. My dog and I go walking at night, before we go to bed.

What’s interesting is that I love being out at night, but I’m also still somebody who’s afraid of the dark. That’s why the experience that I have in the book, being in Death Valley and just walking around in this incredible darkness over a several hour period, was a really great one, because after two or three hours, your eyes seem to shift again and you can see even more. You begin to feel much more comfortable. I’d love to do that again.

Twilley: The most astonishing statistic in the book, for me, was the fact that 40 percent of Americans live in such bright environments that their eyes never transition to night vision—from the cones to rods. I can’t help but wonder if, thanks to our saturation in artificial light, we might end up losing one of our ways of seeing the world.

Bogard: I actually asked Alan Lewis, a former head of the Illuminating Engineering Society of North America, exactly that question. He said he didn’t have any proof that our physiology was changing in response to the disappearance of darkness. Of course, it hasn’t been very long. My guess is that, if we keep going down the path of more and more artificial lighting, we would eventually lose scotopic vision—that’s the technical term for low-light vision using the eye’s rod cells.

That’s one of the things about all this light—it’s been so recent. Our grandparents and our great-grandparents grew up in a time when it was just so much darker. In the book, I’ve included the map that Fabio Falchi, the Italian I meet towards the end of the book, has made of the increase of artificial night sky brightness in North America. It shows the late 1950s, the mid-1970s, 1997, and then a prediction for 2025.


The increase in artificial night sky brightness in North America, including an extrapolated prediction for light pollution levels in 2025. Maps created by P. Cinzano, F. Falchi, and C. D. Elvidge.

I remember the 1970s. It wasn’t that long ago. And it’s significantly darker on those maps then than it is now.

Manaugh: That raises the question of historic preservation and what it means to bring darkness back. I’m reminded of architect Jorge Otero-Pailos and his experimental olfactory reconstruction of Philip Johnson’s Glass House in New Canaan, Connecticut. He realized that, to recreate the original smell of the house, you not only had to recreate all the VOCs off-gassing from new paint and furniture, etc., but you also bring back the smell of tobacco and the smell of certain colognes that were ubiquitous at the time—an entire olfactory aesthetic, as it were, that has been lost in the subsequent years. I mention that because you can imagine that a true historic reconstruction of a 1950s suburb would require not only a totally different light level at night but, by today’s standards, a blinding sky full of stars.


Paris 48º 50' 55" N 2012-08-13 LST 22:15, photo illustration by Thierry Cohen as part of the Villes Eteintes series, via The New York Times.


Paris 48º 51' 46" N 2012-09-13 LST 2:16, photo illustration by Thierry Cohen as part of the Villes Eteintes series, via The New York Times.

Along those lines, I’d love to hear how the National Park Service’s Night Sky Team plans to go about actually protecting such an intangible resource as darkness, and maybe even reconstructing it to “original” levels. I’m also curious whether, in the other direction, you could maybe imagine a time where, thirty years from now, we might actually have a nostalgic “light pollution park.” People would pay admission to see how crazily well-lit our cities used to be.

Twilley: We could just wall off Las Vegas and declare it a light pollution sacrifice zone right now.


The Luxor beam in Las Vegas is equal to the light of more than forty billion candles.

Bogard: That is such a neat idea. I hope that, in thirty years, or perhaps even less, that would make some sense.

As you probably know, for Earth Hour every March, people turn off the lights on certain buildings. When I met with Fabio Falchi, he was trying to get his town, Mantua, to turn off the lights after midnight. He said that he went to the Leaning Tower of Pisa for Earth Hour, and he suddenly realized how magical it was to see these famous monuments with the lights off. He thought that if more people could see these places surrounded by darkness, it would be like a discovery, because no one has seen them like that in fifty years.

Of course, he said, even with the lights off, it’s not how it was, because there’s so much sky glow. There is so much cumulative light from the surroundings reflecting that you could probably never get back to what it was originally like.


Light domes from cities at various distances from Mt. Dellenbaugh, Grand Canyon Parashant National Monument, in 2007. NPS photo.

Twilley: In the book you mention that, even in Death Valley, one of the darkest places in North America, you can see the light dome of Las Vegas on the horizon, and the lights of flights heading into San Francisco above.

Bogard: Exactly. That’s the challenge of preserving darkness: you can’t do it on your own. The National Parks Service team, in addition to figuring out how to measure darkness in order to put a number to what we have to lose, figures that their best bet is education. Of course, the parks themselves have overhauled their own lighting, but they’re also starting to offer all kinds of night programs, whether it be focused on the sensory experience of the land at night or astronomical observation or whatever. If they can’t get the rest of us to care about darkness, they don’t stand a chance of preserving their own.

There are some positive signs. For example, Acadia National Park in Maine had its first Night Sky Festival in 2009, and now the local community of Bar Harbor has enacted a light ordinance to reduce their sky glow.


Poster designed by Tyler Nordgren.

That’s the National Park Service idea, essentially. Americans will come and learn about light pollution and darkness and all of the ecological and health reasons why darkness is important and endangered. Then we will go home and, hopefully, apply some of those lessons there.

I would imagine that lots of people west of the Mississippi might say, “It’s dark where I live.” But we have changed things so much that anywhere you go east of the Mississippi, there is no true darkness. It has all been tainted.

One guy on the Night Sky team told me that sometimes people will ask, “What are you going to do with the cities? You’ll never get the cities dark again—that’s just impossible. There are too many people and too many lights.” He said that, to a certain extent, that’s true. You’re probably not going to bring the Milky Way back over Manhattan or Chicago.

His reply, though, is that if you were able to just reduce the lighting in these major cities you would see great benefits. You could address a lot of the health issues that people in the cities, who are exposed to huge amounts of light at night, are suffering from.

The other thing is that, when you draw the lighting down in the cities, the darkness ripples out into the suburbs and the country. The reason the suburbs and the countryside are so bright is because of the cities. Plenty of suburbs and towns have awful lighting as well, of course, but they could fix that lighting or even turn it all off and their skies would still be bright, because of the nearest city.


A satellite view of Earth at night shows the prevalence of artificial lighting. NASA.

Twilley: To follow up on that, I’m curious about the question of legislation. Some cities, like Flagstaff, have lighting ordinances, of course. But one of the really interesting implications in your book is that, if you think about darkness as a common resource like water or clean air, we have environmental legislation and acceptable levels for pollution for them. Or, if you think about the health side, you could make the analogy with secondhand smoke and the ways in which we regulate that. At one point you mention the phrase “light trespass,” which implies we could treat darkness like property. Would any of these be effective models for preserving darkness?

Bogard: Realistically, I think we have to start with the places that are still dark, and preserve them, because, as with so many things, they are not making it anymore. The pressures are all headed in one direction. Any kind of forward-looking lighting plan that I’ve seen starts with a solid core of darkness and then works its way out from there.

In terms of legislation, in the UK, British astronomers are taking the approach of putting lighting standards into building code. That way, any new building has to have dark-sky-friendly lighting. Then lower lighting levels become more and more normal, and you don’t get that escalation effect I describe, where older buildings look dim next to new ones, and upgrade their lighting to match, and so on. People just get used to it.


Gas station in the middle of Nevada, photograph by James Reeves. "Gas stations," Bogard told us, "are the worst offenders by far. They are just egregiously bright."

Manaugh: Of course, there is potential for a huge backlash against that, at least in the United States. If you use even something as universally beneficial as vehicle emission limits in cars as an example, you see people railing against government intrusion all the time. I can easily see someone on cable news complaining, “They want to tell me when I can turn my lights on?”

Bogard: My hope is that part of that just takes time, and those voices will eventually fade away. I see this with my students. They’ve never really been asked to think about lighting and darkness, and they assume that this super-bright world in which we live today is just the way the world is. If you could shift that and, for example, make a college campus a place where you became sensitive to good lighting, then everybody would leave with at least a sense of what’s possible.

Roger Narboni, who designed the world’s first urban “lighting master plan” for the French city of Montpellier way back in the 1980s, told me that his dream is to have education about light and darkness beginning in kindergarten, as a core part of the curriculum.

Manaugh: There’s a certain poetry to having a conversation about dark sky reserves in the National Radio Quiet Zone. This is a landscape, after all, where, by federal decree, electromagnetic “pollution” has to be kept to a bare minimum.

Bogard: Wow, I didn’t know that. I had never heard of that.


The National Radio Quiet Zone boundaries, via the National Radio Astronomy Observatory.

Manaugh: The regulations were put in place to protect the work of the National Radio Astronomy Observatory in Green Bank. The result is a 13,000-square-mile radio quarantine zone. It’s one of the few places in the United States where the air is not completely saturated by electromagnetic emissions from cell phones and power lines and radio stations and everything else.

Twilley: What’s also interesting is that people move here for that reason—people who feel that they are sensitive to electromagnetic emissions will move here for their health.

Manaugh: So, while we were driving here, we were thinking about the idea of a luxury darkness retreat, as a well-being thing.

Bogard: I can definitely imagine that. The thing I write about in the book is the question of who will have access to darkness. It’s like so many of these other things—green space, trees, quiet, and so on. It could end up being unevenly distributed; where the only way to get real darkness is to be able afford to live in a community like Aspen or Vail or somewhere like that.

This makes me think of when I was in Phoenix. I can’t remember the name of the wealthiest suburb, but what I noticed is that when you drive up towards it, all of a sudden, it’s dark. These people are rich enough to have anything they want, and they choose to have darkness at night.

Meanwhile, kids who are growing up in cities whose families don’t have the resources to travel are never going to experience that. I wonder if it will get to the point where none of us can get there, unless you’re the one percent. Then you can afford to go someplace really dark.

Twilley: It already seems as though there are huge inequalities in our exposure to light at night. I was shocked by the statistic you quote about nearly 20 percent of African-Americans in the United States working the night shift.

Bogard: And then there’s the fact that public housing is almost always over-lit in an effort to deter crime. There’s another darkness-deprived population I hadn’t considered either, before I wrote this book, which is prisoners. There’s this former convict, Ken Lamberton, who wrote about his time in prison and the way he was forced to be in the light—he wasn’t even allowed to cover his face with a blanket at night. It’s as if being constantly illuminated was actually part of his punishment.


Hallway lighting in a supermax prison is never switched off. Photograph via.

One thing that appeals to me about light a lot is how symbolic it is. Our usage of light right now is hugely symbolic of our lack of awareness of how we use things and the way we use so much more of everything than we need. It seems to me that if we could control our light use and use light more intelligently, then it could also be symbolic of us finally getting our act together in a lot of different ways.

Some of the most fascinating, unsettling examples of landscape painting in the contemporary United States are to be found in its prison visiting rooms, where they function as painted backdrops for family photographs.


James Bowlin, United States Penitentiary, Marion, Illinois; photograph courtesy Alyse Emdur. Note the fake trout.

Ranging in subject matter from picturesque waterfalls to urban streetscapes, and from ski resorts to medieval castles, these large-format paintings serve a dual purpose: for the authorities, they help to restrict photography of sensitive prison facilities; for the prisoners and their families, they are an escapist fiction, constructing an alternate reality for display on fridge doors and mantlepieces.


Prison Visiting Room Backdrop, Woodbourne Correctional Facility, New York; photograph by Alyse Emdur.

With nearly 2.3 million Americans in prison today—an astonishing one out of every hundred adults in the United States, according to a 2008 Pew study—this school of landscape art is critically overlooked but has a mass-market penetration comparable to the work of Thomas Kinkade. And, like Kinkade’s work, these backdrops, which are usually painted by talented, self-taught inmates, are simultaneously photo-realistic and highly idealized. Cumulatively, they represent a catalog of imagined utopias—scenes from an abstracted, perfected elsewhere, painted from behind bars.

A few years ago, artist Alyse Emdur was looking through a family album when she came across a photo of herself as a little girl, posed in front of a tropical beach scene while visiting her elder brother in prison. She spent the next few years exploring this overlooked school of landscape art, tracking down examples across the United States.


Emdur family photo in front of prison visiting room backdrop; photograph courtesy Alyse Emdur.

At first, she wrote to prison administrators to ask permission to photograph the backdrops herself—a request that was inevitably firmly denied. Instead, she joined prisoner pen-pal sites, and asked inmates to send her pictures of themselves posed in front of their prison’s backdrops, eventually assembling several hundred photos and more than sixteen binders full of correspondence. Finally, in summer 2011, she gained permission to visit and photograph several prison visiting room backdrops herself.


Prison Landscapes; Published January 2013 by Four Corners Books.


Michael Parker and Geoff Manaugh looking at Alyse Emdur's correspondence and work in their shared studio space; photograph by Venue.

Venue visited Emdur’s studio in downtown Los Angeles in June 2012, as she was collecting all this material for a book, Prison Landscapes, published this month by Four Corners Books. After a studio tour conducted by her partner, artist Michael Parker, we followed up with Emdur by phone: the edited transcript of our conversation appears below.

• • •


Alyse Emdur's large-format photographs of prison visiting room backdrops on her studio walls; photograph by Venue.

Nicola Twilley: From the hundreds of photographs that prisoners sent you, as well as the ten or so backdrops that you were able to photograph yourself, it seems as though there is almost a set list of subject matter: glittering cityscapes, scenes of natural landscapes, like beaches and sunsets, and then historical or fantasy architecture, such as medieval castles. Did you notice any patterns or geographic specificity to these variations in subject matter?

Alyse Emdur: You do see some regional realism—so, prisons in Washington State will have evergreen trees in their backdrops, prisons in Florida will have white sand beaches, and prisons in Louisiana will have New Orleans French Quarter-style features. There’s also the question of where the prisoners are from: one thing that I’ve observed is that in upstate New York, for example, many of the prisoners are actually from New York City, so many of the backdrops in upstate New York prisons show New York City skylines.

Fantastical scenes are actually much less common—from what I gather from my correspondence, realism is like gold in prison. That’s the form of artistic expression that’s most appreciated and most respected, so that’s often the goal for the backdrop painter.

Twilley: Do you have a sense of how you get to be a backdrop painter—do inmates chose amongst themselves or do the prison authorities just make a selection? And, on a similar note, how much artistic freedom does the backdrop painter actually have, in terms of needing approval of his or her subject matter from fellow inmates or the authorities?

Emdur: That’s one of the questions that I’ve asked of all the backdrop painters who I’ve been in touch with over the years. The answer is always that if you are a “good artist” in prison, then you’re very well-respected within the prison—people in the prison all know you. You’ll be making greeting cards for people or you’ll be doing hand calligraphy for love letters for friends in prison—you’ll be known for your skills. The prison administration is already aware of the respected artists, because they shine within the culture, and so they are usually the ones that are chosen. And when you’re chosen, it’s a huge honor.


Genesis Asiatic, Powhatan Correctional Center, Statefarm, Virginia; photograph courtesy Alyse Emdur.

Something to keep in mind, though, is that backdrops do get painted over. In some prisons, the backdrop can change a few times a year.

One of the artists I’ve kept in touch with is Darrell Van Mastrigt—I interviewed him for the book, and he painted a backdrop for me that was in my thesis show. In the prison that he’s in, the portrait studios are organized by the NAACP. He said that the NAACP had seen his paintings in the past, and when they selected him, they gave him creative control over what sort of landscape he chose to paint.

Obviously, there are some rules. The main restriction is that you can’t use certain colors that are affiliated with gangs. So, for instance, Darrell painted a mural with two cars and they had to be green and purple—they couldn’t be red or blue. But, from what Darrell has told me and from what I understand from other painters, they don’t get much input from other prisoners. At the same time, they’re very conscious of wanting to please people and maintain their status within the prison, of course, and they get a lot of pleasure out of doing something positive for families in the visiting room.


One of sixteen binders full of letters and prisoner portraits mailed to Emdur; photograph by Venue.

Another interesting thing a painter told me was that she was very conscious of not wanting to do a specific, recognizable cityscape, because she knew that not everyone in the prison was from the city. So she deliberately tried to paint a more abstract landscape that she thought anyone could relate to.
And a lot of imagery they work from is from books in the prison library, rather than just their memories.


Brandon Jones, United States Penitentiary, Marion, Illinois; photograph courtesy Alyse Emdur.

Twilley: In some of the photographs you were sent, the prisoners are in front of off-the-shelf printed backdrops—some offering multiple pull-down choices—rather than hand-painted ones. Are these standardized commercial backdrops gradually replacing the inmate-produced landscapes?

Emdur: The backdrop-painting tradition is definitely still vibrant and strong, but my sense is that these store-bought backdrops are becoming more and more common.

For one thing, the hand-painted backdrops are not always as realistic as a photograph, and, often, the prisoners and their families are looking to create the illusion that they really are somewhere else. So, the more realistic, the better. When I went to photograph a backdrop in one New York State prison, I found an amazing hand-painted mural of a New York City skyscraper with a cartoon-like Statue of Liberty in front—she almost looked alive. But it had been completely covered up by a pull-down, store-bought, photographic backdrop of the New York City skyline. I tried to photograph the backdrop in Fort Dix Federal Prison in New Jersey and they told me that they had just painted over the hand-painted backdrop and replaced it with a commercial photography backdrop.


Small prints of Emdur's backdrop photographs on her studio wall, alongside a few examples of her extensive collection of self-help books; photograph by Venue. Notice the hand-painted cityscape with Statue of Liberty on the left.

Of course, another thing is that it’s easier to buy a backdrop than it is to engage with a prisoner, you know? And attitudes vary from prison to prison. In some prisons, you’ll find murals throughout the facility, not just in the visiting rooms. I went on a tour of a privately-operated women’s prison in Florida, for instance, that lasted four hours because there were paintings everywhere—in all the hallways, dorm rooms, and offices. The PR person who assisted me on that tour explained that having prisoners paint murals is really a way to keep them busy and out of trouble, so they saw it as a really positive activity.

Of course, I see these paintings as a way for people in prison to temporarily escape the architecture and culture of confinement, and that’s what makes them so important for me.


Antoine Ealy, Federal Correctional Complex, Coleman, Florida; photograph courtesy Alyse Emdur.

Twilley: There’s an uncomfortable overlap between the escapism of the landscapes and then the other purpose of the backdrops, which is to not allow photographs of the prison interior to get out.

Emdur: Yes—I found that really concerning. The prison administration either thinks that photographs of the interior of the prison could help inmates escape or, at the very least, the administrators are trying to control the imagery of the prison that reaches the outside world.

During my research, I’ve been trying to figure out how long these kinds of backdrops have been used. From prison administrators to PR people to wardens and prisoners, everyone told me they don’t even remember—these kinds of painted backdrops have been used in visiting rooms for as long as they can remember. I’ve spoken to a sixty-five-year-old warden who just said, “You know, they’ve been here longer than I have.”


Robert RuffBey, United States Penitentiary, Atlanta, Georgia; photograph courtesy Alyse Emdur.

I do know that at some point in the last twenty years, companies came along that would charge inmates to substitute in a different backdrop. If you’re a prisoner and you have a photograph of yourself or yourself and your kids in front of the painted backdrop in the visiting room, then you could send your photograph to one of these companies and they would take out the painting and then put in a Photoshop background. That’s not very common at all, but it’s pretty bizarre—one fake landscape being replaced by another.

Going along with that is the replacement of Polaroid with digital photography. All these portraits were Polaroid up until the last five to ten years, I would say. Some prisons still use Polaroids, but from what I gather, it’s basically all digital now.


Prison Visiting Room Backdrop, Shawangunk Correctional Facility, New York; photograph by Alyse Emdur. Unlike the family portraits, Emdur's own large-format photographs deliberately show the prison context that surrounds the backdrop landscape, for an unsettling contrast.


One of sixteen binders full of letters and prisoner portraits mailed to Emdur; photograph by Venue.

One thing to remember is that all the prisons have slightly different rules and they all organize their prison portrait programs differently. In most state and federal prisons in America, the only place where a prisoner can be photographed is in front of these backdrops, and the only time they can be photographed in front of the backdrops is when they have a visitor—but then there are all these exceptions. At some prisons, for instance, you can get your picture taken at special events, like graduations or holiday parties. Then some prisons have murals elsewhere in the prison, not in the visiting room, that you can sign up once a month or something to have your picture taken in front of.


Kimberly Buntyn, Valley State Prison for Women, Chowchilla, California; photograph courtesy Alyse Emdur.

This question of the kinds of images of prisons that are allowed out is quite interesting. In fact, I’m working with a photographer who’s been in prison for almost 30 years in Michigan, on what I think will be my next book. In the 1970s and 80s, he ran the photo lab in Jackson Prison, and he was in charge of developing and printing all the inmates’ photographs. At that time, the rules of photography were very different in prison—there just weren’t as many rules, basically. This guy has hundreds of photographs from all over Jackson State Prison.

It’s just fascinating to see the differences between these very staged and framed visiting room portraits and the reality of the prison as seen through this guy’s eyes—through an insider’s eyes. I think his situation was extremely rare when it happened, but today it’s totally unheard of. The majority of photographs that come out of prisons today are these visiting room portraits. I suppose some prisoners are smuggling cell phones with cameras into prison, but those images aren’t easy to find!


Binders full of letters and prisoner portraits mailed to Emdur; photograph by Venue.


One of sixteen binders full of letters and prisoner portraits mailed to Emdur; photograph by Venue. Several of Emdur's pen-pals adopted the "prison pose," a low crouch, while others incorporated props or flexed their muscles.

Geoff Manaugh: Both Nicky and I were amazed by the amount of correspondence you’ve gathered in the process of researching these backdrops—binder after binder organized and shelved in your studio—but I can’t imagine that it’s been easy to edit it all down into a book, or to get releases from all the prisoners, for example. How has that process worked?

Emdur: It’s been really tough. With 2.3 million Americans in prison today, just think how many of these portrait studio photographs there are circulating in family albums and frames all across the country. A big part of me wants to document more and more and more. But, for a book, I figured it was really important to step back a little bit and not go crazy, and instead try to focus and pull out the different genres of backdrops and the different poses and the stories.

In terms of the process of getting releases, that was a huge effort. As you know, I collected the images through contacting prisoners on pen-pal websites. I sent out something like 300 letters and about 150 inmates responded really quickly with photographs of themselves in front of these backdrops.

A lot of prisoners are looking for engagement with the outside world, so it was very easy to collect the images. The challenging thing was getting releases for publication. Tracking down people who’d been released was one thing. For minors, we wanted to get our release approvals from both the incarcerated parents and also from the non-incarcerated parents, and that really was challenging.


One of sixteen binders full of letters and prisoner portraits mailed to Emdur; photograph by Venue.

But, really, the most difficult thing for me about this project is just how emotionally challenging it is—how draining it is—to correspond with hundreds of people who have a very different reality than I have and live a very different life than I do and who don’t have the privileges that I would normally take for granted.

The relationship between the incarcerated and the free is a very complex relationship, and that’s something that I’m interested in showing in the book, and that I hope comes out in the correspondence.


 
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