Museums

Prisoner Fantasies

by Alissa Guzman on July 24, 2012

An installation view of Dave Adler’s “Prisoner Fantasies: Photos from the Inside” (photo by Willis Arnold)

While I often feel that galleries and museums have overzealous security guards, I was not completely prepared for entering the Clocktower Gallery in Lower Manhattan, located on what feels like the forgotten 13th floor of one the city’s courthouses. Though art and artists often take hold in unlikely places, wandering the deserted courthouse on a Friday afternoon made this gallery feel more unusual than most. Next time I’ll remember to remove the nail clippers from my bag before heading through security, to save myself a scolding. After taking the elevators to the 12th floor and finding the mysterious staircase to the 13th, you come out upon a long hallway of mostly locked artist studios. Despite its sterile appearance and secretive location, however, the nonprofit Clocktower Gallery has been providing artists with residencies, alternative gallery space and installation sites since the early 1970s. The space is also home to Clocktower Radio, a station that plays a mix of music, talk shows and historical art lectures.

A new exhibition at the Clocktower, entitled Prisoner Fantasies: Photos from the Inside, is in keeping with the idea of art being made in unusual places. Sixteen 4×6 photographs, the outdated size we associate with 1-hour photo labs, have been collected and installed by the artist and critic Dave Adler, with curatorial assistance by David Weinstein and Alanna Heiss. Prisoner Fantasies is a series of snapshots taken by prison inmates of their fellow prisoners. Posing for their portraits, the inmates themselves stand alone in front of idyllic landscapes painted by prisoners on canvas or cinderblocks.

These photographs, referred to as “click clicks” on the inside, are like personalized postcards, taken for and sent to family and friends on the outside. Though the photographs are practical in concept and are not necessarily made to have “artistic” value, these photographs inadvertently question the assumptions we make about the identity of people in prisons. Adler’s installation of “click clicks,” so different from the familiar mug shot, is a unique look at the people who inhabit our prisons. If you didn’t know otherwise, you might have a hard time placing the men standing so causally in front of an imagined place, smiling happily, if momentarily, for the camera.

“Chris” (photo courtesy the artist)

Adler, a London- and New York-based artist and writer, is interested in the intersection between art and economics, and first discovered the tradition of “click clicks” while teaching filmmaking inside a US prison. As Adler explains in a Vice interview, “in the visiting room there are all these murals that prisoners can choose from to be photographed in front of. I asked the warden about them, and he said, ‘that’s not one of our art programs, that’s just a service we offer for prisoners.’” Though internally prisons refer to these photographs as the “click click program,” there is no program per se, nor is there anything official about them. “It’s just a part of prison culture,” Adler’s says, adding that, “I like the fact that no one prompts the prisoners to do this, they make ‘click clicks’ on their own.”

“Gerardo” (click to enlarge) (photo courtesy the artist)

It is hard at first to know exactly where to begin when closely inspecting the artist’s sixteen “click click” images. The installation itself is so modest that it is easy to feel dismissive and even disappointed. There are no glossy or oversize prints, and there is nothing slick, arty or even conceptual about the photographs themselves. Adler has surrendered his artistic control, as well as his chance of creating a cultural or political message through these charged images. Instead, he has opted in favor of simply sharing them, much like they were shared with him. These photographs are a cultural and political critique by default, rather than through the artist’s design, and because of this they feel more genuine and powerful than most political art.

Moving beyond the installation as whole, we realize that “click clicks” actually are snapshots, printed on that familiar pearl paper so different from digital prints. Despite the reality that we are staring into the faces of inmates, these prisoners look vaguely familiar, like seeing a photograph of the cousin you met once a long time ago but haven’t seen since. All men, they are dressed in causal everyday clothes, posing with wistful and almost apologetic smiles. They remind us of no one and everyone at the same time, as they look like the people you’d run into anywhere that middle class Americans go — the supermarket, the gym, in a public park. The pictured prisoners seem to defy stereotypes simply by looking like themselves, and Adler’s presentation of them changes how we think about staged and manipulated studio portraits.

“Daniel”

The backdrops of these photographs, so carefully selected and painted by a few artistic inmates, depict calendar-like cityscapes, landscapes and places full of imagined fun and laughter: Santa’s workshop or a theme park. “There are some signs of regionalism,” Adler notes, “backdrops of covered bridges in New England, some cowboy themes in the Southwest, a lot of mountains in the Northwest.” Purely abstract backdrops, full of spongy texture and color, are encouraged over landscapes because of their ambiguity. Bringing “click clicks” back to the reality of the “program,” Adler explains, “this isn’t really a free system; there are wardens monitoring it for gang symbols. The belief is that if it’s some kind of watery, abstract background it’s easier to spot a gang symbol.”

Despite these imposed limitations, the hand-painted backdrops seem to represent fantasies more than any one place in particular. They oddly parallel the cheesy and gimmicky props found in a Kmart photo studio, props that help children, couples and families appear more perfect, happy and normal than they most likely are. The backdrops, and the inmates framed within them, feel aspirational and hopeful, with the perfect family being replaced by the perfect landscape or location. The all-encompassing need for these particular fantasies, for these kind of locations — the perfect sunset, ocean view or grove of maple trees — is certainly understandable, and dominates the photographs; though trapped inside a dismal reality, the “click clicks” project pure escapism.

Through the Prisoner Fantasies project, Adler has stumbled upon photographs full of the manipulative qualities we both love and hate about photography. Prisoner Fantasies is a series of highly constructed photographs, one fiction stacked upon anther from the backdrops to the prisoners. In spite of this, however, the “click clicks” cannot hide, only temporarily disguise, their reality. Picking up my nail clippers held hostage by the security guards, I felt haunted walking through a deserted downtown street by the gritty reality of those faces framed on the 13th floor. It’s a great trick of society that makes us feel like we understand the people inside prisons simply because we know what they are, and Adler’s Prisoner Fantasies tell us bluntly that we don’t.

Dave Adler’s Prisoner Fantasies: Photos from the Inside continues at the Clocktower Gallery (108 Leonard Street, 13th floor, Soho, Manhattan) until August 31.

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  • http://twitter.com/QUELBEAST Quel Beast

    how many times in this article are you going to be surprised that you’re looking at human beings? the fact that you’re expecting to see mug shots of comic book villains makes the whole review more creepy and voyeuristic than the art already is.
    can this stuff even be presented without the assumed superiority of the viewer? why not curate midwest myspace photos or glamour shots so the out of touch art crowd can stand back and think “wow, people really live like this”.

    • http://hragv.com Hrag Vartanian

      I think part of this is the power of the prisoners to represent themselves. They are often portrayed by others (media, gov’t, etc.) that it is shocking to many of us in the ways they choose to represent themselves. And you’re right, the role of the viewer is crucial.

      • http://jdsiazon.com/ JD Siazon

        “Click clicks” might be especially designed by the prisoners to beguile or at the very least slightly ameliorate all of the heinous and possibly even shockingly violent crimes these men have been accused of committing so that their respective lovers, friends and relatives may bear their incarceration ever more conscientiously and be spared–if only for a moment–the agony and shame of total recall.

      • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=544657456 Lex Steppling

        There is no power of self representation. These pictures are taken in prison, while wearing standard issue clothes. They are being represented in this case by an artist. There is still no autonomy for them.

        • http://hragv.com Hrag Vartanian

          Clothes are only one of many ways to control your self representation.

    • http://twitter.com/jilnotjill Jillian Steinhauer

      What’s the alternative—to not show the photos at all and let the out-of-touch art crowd pretend a whole other layer or part of society doesn’t exist?

      • http://twitter.com/CherrellBrown The Awkward Activist

        wait….”the out-of-touch art crowd”? She is the “out-of-touch art crowd”! Showing cheap poloroids of prisoners doesn’t make anyone “more in touch”, than wearing a “Stop KONY” t-shirt does. The phrase “Whats the alternative” sounds to me like the classic impetus when beginning an exploitive campaign of some sort.

        Ignorance is still there, thinly veiled behind what seems to perhaps be good intentions, OR the need to appear more of an “expert” than they are.

        • http://twitter.com/jilnotjill Jillian Steinhauer

          I find the tendency to immediately jump on this kind of installation as wrong and exploitative—especially when neither you nor I has seen it—to be neither correct nor helpful. I also think that if you find the installation itself offensive on behalf of the prisoners, then calling these images “cheap polaroids of prisoners” is just as, if not more offensive, to the people who took them. But you are right: that can be an alternative that is perhaps more amenable and educational.

          • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=544657456 Lex Steppling

            Most photos taken in prison are cheap poloroids. These may or may not be, but it’s a fact. Again, please at least for a second critically look at your point of view.

          • http://twitter.com/jilnotjill Jillian Steinhauer

            I know that they are, but I found the tone of the comment combined with the language to be dismissive.

  • http://twitter.com/CherrellBrown The Awkward Activist

    …now if you watch closely, you’ll see the yellow bellied hyena in his natur…oops sorry, I got confused with phrases like “unique look at the people who inhabit our prisons”, thought I was watching Nat Geo. Could this sound anymore out of touch? The basic summation of this article is that you are surprised incarcerated people are….*drum roll* people. Zoinks Scooby!!!

    I hope you, and your nail clippers, slept peacefully in whatever overpriced hipster neighborhood you ventured out of.

    • http://twitter.com/jilnotjill Jillian Steinhauer

      I find this response completely out of line; just because someone doesn’t know a lot of people—maybe any people—in prison and therefore expresses surprise and wonder at how unassuming prisoners look doesn’t make them someone who lives in some “overpriced hipster neighborhood.” And even if the writer DOES live in a “hipster” neighborhood! What on earth does that have to do with her lovely piece? The divide between people in prisons and the rest of the world, on the outside, is huge in much of our society. Many people don’t know about prison life or conditions firsthand. She’s pointing out how effectively these photos humanize prisoners, and that is a good thing.

      • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=544657456 Lex Steppling

        Then it begs the question of if/why this is art? If Adler’s goal is to “humanize” prisoners (did you need this to realize that they are?) then perhaps he could tap into whatever resources he has access to and support the multitude of work happening that aims to not only humanize prisoners, but change/reform the very system that has the USA #1 in the world in incarceration. I read that he teaches in the prisons and would need to know more about that before I level either positive or negative judgment as that can be both wonderful or problematic. It’s very easy to be offended by this piece if you have loved ones behind bars. I’m not sure where to start but I think I would find it all a lot less frustrating if there were some reflection on who in fact is dehumanized. Perhaps it’s the viewer? If you are so surprised to find that these men look like the the person who could go to a place that “middle class Americans” go? like a gym or a park or a supermarket? Then I would hope for a little self reflection on why that’s a surprise? What factors have allowed you to be so cut off from the experience of so many? …because, These men DO go to gyms and parks and supermarkets, whether middle class or not. Unless of course they are locked up, like millions and millions of other men and women, who also happen to be mothers and fathers and brothers and sisters and sons and daughters. Prison is there to essentially be the antithesis of anything inspiring which makes this exhibit feel ironic in the worst sense. These backdrops are the only alternative to a white wall. Many elect the white wall, especially when family is visiting, because to pose in front of these murals with a loved one feels silly. The backdrops are similar to old photo booths, many of which are still used, especially around the world where a fantasy backdrop is used, it’s not specific to prison. If I understand correctly, Adler didn’t take any of these pics himself, so he is presenting something done by others as an installation piece. He is exhibiting this experience for the eyes of others, presenting himself as some sort of conduit. Again, I do not understand where the art is happening here, nor do I appreciate the voicelessness of the subjects given the context of the presentation.

        • http://twitter.com/jilnotjill Jillian Steinhauer

          To Awkward Activist and Lex: I may be wrong here, but it seems to me that part of your extremely negative response is to the installation itself. I would just point out that the writer here is not responsible for that—she is responding to a series of photographs that the Clocktower Gallery and Dave Adler decided to display.
          That said, Lex, I’m not sure why you think the subjects are totally voiceless. These are pictures the prisoners took themselves, of each other, and again, I may be wrong here, because I don’t have all the information, but I highly doubt that Adler simply took the pictures out of the prison without anyone’s consent. The subjects most likely agreed to have their faces and images shown. I haven’t seen the installation yet, so I don’t know how much explanation/wall text there is, but to me it seems as though Adler is taking a step toward giving these prisoners a voice on the outside. And I think your judgment that he rather use his efforts for activism is unfair: a) he already does—he works with prisoners, and we don’t know if he does more than that, and b) some people are activists through their work, in this case as a critic and curator.

          • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=544657456 Lex Steppling

            The conditions that dictate all of these relationships are being accepted, which is my problem with this piece and with what I know of the exhibition. And yes, they are voiceless, and powerless. Literally. Not once Jillian, in any of your comments have you reflected on why you might be out of touch or why it took an exhibit like this to “humanize”. Why?. Adler may or may not do good work, just because he teaches in prisons doesn’t mean anything. I’m sure his intentions are good though. As I clearly stated, you have two options, a plane wall, or a mural backdrop, that’s the extent of this whole experience. Not much there if you ask me. And while you remind me that I did not attend this exhibit, I should ask you if you have ever been inside of a prison? It’s amazing how cavalierly you assume there is any empowerment going on via Adler’s use of these photos. “Giving” them a voice on the outside? Please think about that sentence for at least a minute. Art as activism is it’s own subject but I’m still missing the art part here. I know the author of these piece and she’s a highly intelligent person, and I am surprised that she didn’t take the time to question her own remoteness from the subject matter and instead chose to affirm a very surface and (in my opinion) problematic lens with which it appears this exhibit is being taken in.

          • http://www.facebook.com/people/John-Steppling/543240918 John Steppling

            the comparison to children and Kmart and gimmicks………I mean that sentence alone is patronizing beyond belief. If a graduate of julliard or cal arts had presented this…without the kitsch bio of “prisoner” (i.e. unsophisticated etc) that sentence wouldnt exist. You would not call a grad student a child or suggest the work came from Kmart. The critique might have suggested, oh, the artist is using sign codes borrowed from rite aid…blah blah. . THAT is the problem with the review per se. “Chessy”…? Says you……NON PRISONER…..art critic….socially superior. The work is not being judged on its own terms but on the terms of its fetish value.

          • http://twitter.com/jilnotjill Jillian Steinhauer

            For what it’s worth, I’ve been reflecting a ton on why I’m out of touch on this—I’ve been thinking about it since long before I read this article and these comments. But those are thoughts I’m still working out, not yet fully formed. I don’t know anyone in prison, and I recognize 100% that that changes my point of view. Does that immediately mean I’m wrong in thinking this exhibition sounds interesting? I don’t know. Obviously you and others say yes. I’m sorry that my comments have read as cavalier to you—that wasn’t my intention. What I’m trying to do is better understand your point of view. You find both the article and the installation as offensive and dehumanizing. You’ve mentioned some of what you think Alissa could have done to avoid that. I’m curious if you think there would be a way to make the installation acceptable, or if you think simply showing the photos at all isn’t OK.

          • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=544657456 Lex Steppling

            Things like appropriation, power or lack there of, why this exhibit might be problematic, the role of prison in art and inmates as artists (as John pointed out), over incarceration in general as a very serious part of the American reality…..None of these things were touched on. I wonder if Adler thinks critically about his relationship to inmates, and the colonial dynamic he steps into as a “teacher” to them, because it seems absent. Alissa writes “These photographs are a cultural and political critique by default, rather than through the artist’s design, and because of this they feel more genuine and powerful than most political art.”…But explains no further….How so? and then things like this …”Despite the reality that we are staring into the faces of inmates, these prisoners look vaguely familiar” I mean, where do I start with a statement like that? do you not see anything wrong with that? At the very least Alissa could have taken that moment to check in with herself about what structures are in place that allow “vaguely familiar” to be as close to human as she was able to get. The vantage point of the “cut-off” art crowd is affirmed throughout the review when it should have been questioned. The exhibit also goes completely un scathed which is puzzling given the inherent trickiness of Adler’s relationship to his piece.

          • http://twitter.com/hyperallergic hyperallergic

            Hi Lex, We’d love for you to write a response piece if you’re interested. Let us know here. You have a lot to say and we’d love to broadcast those ideas.

          • http://twitter.com/jilnotjill Jillian Steinhauer

            That all makes a ton of sense. Thank you for elaborating, and as our moderator wrote just below, I think a response piece would be great.

          • http://www.facebook.com/people/John-Steppling/543240918 John Steppling

            First off, of course its exploitive. But putting that aside for a second— historically prisoners have been of huge importance artistically in almost any culture you can think of. From Villon to genet to bunker to Malcolm and James Carr…..and on and on. The problem here is that the voices of these prisoners is being appropriated — they are not being voice at all. Secondly, its fethishizing the criminal. Its voyeuristic. Its a sort of aesthetic slumming. Intentions dont really matter, what matters is the work. Beyond that, “found art” of which this is related, has always straddled a fence that separates objectification and appreciation. When the curated gallery culture presents this work, this is a built in paternalism. It may be that this is an almost insurmountable problem — be that as it may, that fact exists. Criminals….and there are MILLIONS in the US — ARE marginalized. They may not always be the best judge of how exploitation works….again that doesn’t really matter. A real concern with THEIR voices would mean creating a very different context for ‘looking at them’.

          • http://www.facebook.com/people/John-Steppling/543240918 John Steppling

            **not being given voice (how the above should read)/////// Prison dehumanizes. It is also a place of fear. Punishment is always there…..and the authorities are happy to exercise it. Given all this…the reality of incarceration, I think any “gallery” presentation must be particularly careful about the unspoken frames in which such work will appear. One final note….the review tends toward a pop-pyschologizing of the inmates….which sort of proves my point. We dont know the fantasies of these prisoners. We cannot know…even those who have been incarcerated, cannot really know….such is the profoundly opaque nature of such closed off worlds. And this is partly the reason for the power that often accompanies the creative work of those behind bars. Both the critic and the curator need to meditate a bit longer on what is a complex and difficult subject.

      • http://twitter.com/CherrellBrown The Awkward Activist

        Well we have common ground Jill!!!! Because I find this entire piece out of line. Novel idea of Adler’s to exploit prisoner photographs, that he himself didn’t take, for people to be voyeurs of their circumstances- with no real commentary- and then Ms. Guzman to then in turn present this “installation” as a means to further, perhaps ignorantly so, exploit a painful, ugly part of our society, with no real commentary. Novel cycle of voyeuristic judgement in deed.

        And I quote “Prisoner Fantasies is a series of highly constructed photographs, one fiction stacked upon anther from the backdrops to the prisoners.”…what? What part is fiction? The nice backdrops juxtaposed with these offenders? As if to draw a contrast with this statement. If you want to judge/critique “art”, please continue on…but this “analysis” here does more than judge art.

        “If you didn’t know otherwise, you might have a hard time placing the men
        standing so causally in front of an imagined place, smiling happily”…are you waiting on Velma to pull off the mask, and reveal old man Higgins? Stop looking for monsters, start remembering they are humans, with pasts and futures, and daughters, and hobbies, skill sets, memories and hopes. Ignorance doesn’t excuse anyone from being offensive and out of touch, Jillian, especially when they share it so freely.

        Thanks

        • http://twitter.com/jilnotjill Jillian Steinhauer

          I think her point about fictions is that the backdrops are fictions (which they are—they are artificially painted landscapes), and those backdrops provide a an unreal setting against which the prisoners take these photographs, which are also fictions, as all portraits are. To me, this ties into questions and a lot of photo theory and writing about portraiture—particularly portraiture against painted backdrops—as a false construct.
          That said, I appreciate your comments and your thoughts on this; I will use them as fodder to rethink my own.

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