NEW YORK – “The Age of Innocence: Prisoner Escapist Photos,” as collected and documented by artist Dave Adler is on view at The Clocktower Gallery until August 31, 2012. The exhibition consists of 16 photographs of prisoners, by prisoners, using prisoner painted backdrops that feature fantasy scenes of life outside prisons. The exhibit is open Tuesday – Friday, noon to 5 p.m.
Inmate fantasy or ‘escapist’ photos are a central visual fact of prison life. They consist of portraits of inmates taken against photographic backdrops featuring a fantasy scene of life outside. Virtually every major American prison, including the Washington State Penitentiary in Walla Walla Washington and the Shawangunk Correctional Facility in Wallkill, New York, has its own painted backdrop, created by inmates for use in taking photographs. The photographers themselves are also inmates: the “visiting room photographer” is an official, paid, rotating position, equivalent to working in the laundry. The subject poses in front of the escapist backdrop, and then sends the resulting portrait to family members. That is, ‘escapist’ photos are images taken by inmates, for inmates, featuring inmate created backdrops. Though widespread in prison circles, they are unknown in the “free world” (the prison term for life outside the prison system).
This collaborative movement is national in scope – it is practiced in every state and at the federal prison level as well. Though some states (and wardens) discourage the practice, other states encourage it, as a peaceful means of self-expression. The photos have great currency for convicts; they are expensive to obtain, and access can be withheld as punishment. They are the preferred method of communicating with family and friends (email is not allowed). The photos have many objectives: to entertain; to pretend to be somewhere else; to visually escape. The photos may attempt to present a pretty or lighthearted picture but in reality they often convey exactly the opposite.
The reasons this vast and energetic photography subculture – there are over 2 million prisoners in the US – is so little known is multifold. Prisons are of course a closed world. Among prisoners the collaborative process of creating backgrounds and photos is so routine as to be unremarkable. More fundamentally, the portraits and backdrops defy the expectations and hence interest of a non-prison audience. There is a complete lack of sensation. As opposed to pre-conceived notions of infamy – often derived from rap and the entertainment industry – here the inmates are smiling.
The backdrops typically consist of large painting on canvas but others are painted directly on cinderblock walls (some of these are particularly delicate, adding to the tension in the image). Though natural themes are common – beaches, waterfalls, rainbows – so are city skylines. Regionalism is apparent including Western motifs, and Mexican murals, but early American themes or Colonial New England have their place too. Most backgrounds are abstract. There is a reason for this: Wardens review every backdrop for signs of gang symbols and abstract painting are seen as more likely to be clean.
Adler, who has been exploring prison photography for over 5 years says, “at a time when people are questioning work coming out of the market-driven art world, particularly after the financial crisis, prison photographs are examples of art produced in a different institutional framework altogether. Within this art system, money plays almost no role yet the photographs are imbued with a value often lacking in expensive portraits from the free world.”
Adler’s prison photography project will travel to the American Society of Criminology Meeting in Chicago, November 14-17, 2012. The archive, including both photos and backdrops will eventually be housed at St. Francis College, Brooklyn as the core collection of a multi-disciplinary center for the study of the US prison photography system.
The exhibition is made possible in part with public funds from the Manhattan Community Arts Fund, supported by the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs in partnership with the City Council and administered by Lower Manhattan Cultural Council.
David Weinstein and Alanna Heiss are the Clocktower Gallery curators.
ABOUT DAVE ADLER
Dave Adler is a London and New York based artist and critic. He is interested in the intersection of arts and economics, which he has written extensively about, most recently for Frieze Magazine. Adler has produced arts documentaries for the BBC and taught documentary filmmaking at a US prison. His prison photography project has been profiled in Aperture Magazine and was exhibited at the 2011 Athens Biennale. Adler is establishing a national multidisciplinary center for the study of the US prison photography system with criminologist Dr. Emily Horowitz of St. Francis College Brooklyn.
Susan Grant Lewin Associates
Images Courtesy of Dave Adler Archive
Portrait of Daniel Portrait of Casey
Prisoner Created Backdrop
Washington State Penitentiary, Walla Walla, WA.
Prisoner Created Backdrop
Hudson Correctional Facility, Colorado