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 Sixteen 4×6 photographs, the outdated size we associate with 1-hour photo labs, have been collected and installed by the artist and critic Dave Adler, with curatorial assistance by David Weinstein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.
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.”
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.
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.