Artist and documentarian Dave Adler has devoted the latter part of his career unearthing a unique subculture existing within the American prison system. Through dozens of interviews across the US he has learned about an art-making practice that involves the creation of large-scale painted murals for the use of prison photo shoots. The artists, who are prisoners themselves, create these elaborate backdrops that evoke a sense of escapism and a connection with a world outside of a prison cell for inmates who wish to send photographs to family and friends. Rather than display the bleakness of a cell block, these artists help provide a new setting that each inmate can use for their portraits.
It is important to understand that these backdrops were not created through an intervention of an outside artist. They were all envisioned and realised by imprisoned artists under the supervision of wardens who could decide to allow or not allow the final output. In general, prisons view these backdrops as more of a service for prisoners rather than “art.” For those on the outside, the idea is debatable. I personally view them as art.
Images of the portraits and excerpts of interviews with these artists will be on view at Philadelphia-based Eastern State Penitentiary, a historic 19th century prison that detained notorious felons such Al Capone, Slick Willie, and Charles Yerkes amongst others. The institution was converted into a museum in the 1990s and began an artists-in-residence program.
Dave Adler is one of Eastern State’s latest residents and his exhibition Visions of the Free World opens May 10th and will be on view through May 2013.
Artlyst: What inspired you to begin researching prison systems and this unique subculture of portraiture?
DA: I originally stumbled upon this art system while teaching documentary studies in a women’s prison in upstate New York. I came across a painted backdrop used for portraits in the visiting room. What was interesting to me was unlike the work being created in art classes in prison, this work was largely “unprompted,” reflecting a true need of prisoners.
Later, at a party in upper Manhattan, a prison priest told me the backdrop I saw was part of a larger system of prison photography and that every prison in New York State uses these backdrops. Then I learned the system was national.
Artlyst: Do you have a sense of how the inmates feel about your project? If so, what have been some of the responses?
DA: The typical response of prisoners is very positive. They write letters back to me along with the photo with the general idea being that it is time to show that prisoners are people too. Of course this is a self-selected group as presumably prisoners who don’t like the idea of the project don’t respond. The letters describe what they think of the backdrop and why they chose it, as well as more about their life. The letters are often much darker than the photos, where the inmates are typically smiling.
What is exciting to me about the exhibition in Philadelphia is that I am finally able to show some of the content of the letters alongside the photos.
One letter, from a woman named Marlo, said, “How come you get to see my photos but I don’t get to see yours?” I of course wrote back, and sent her my photo along with a letter.
Artlyst: What were the reactions of the guards and staff at some of these prisons? Did you ever run into conflict?
DA: It really varied by the state, depending upon the level of support from senior prison administrators. For instance, New York State has consistently denied there even is a backdrop photography program, even though I have seen the backdrops with my own eyes and have many photos of prisoners in front of these backdrops.
In contrast, Washington State, which is much more enlightened, has been very helpful. Prison wardens and administrators there have kept me in the loop as new backdrops are produced and send me photos of this new work. I am currently working on gaining access for a short film about the creation of a backdrop so I will be able to document the whole process form start to finish.
Artlyst: The portraits and interviews with the inmates add a layer of humanity to them that is often forgotten. What do you hope viewers will take from the show?
DA: Well humanising the people caught in a very brutal system is front and center so to speak. I think it is also important for viewers to understand the size of this system and the huge numbers of people involved, and to convey the complexity and variety of their visual inventiveness despite the harsh circumstances.
I also have aesthetic objectives. In every fashion and youth magazine, all the models are pictured with the same expression; blank and bored, jaded, or dazed and confused. This is true of models in fashion shows too, at least during the show. No one is smiling.
Here everyone is smiling. This is one reason why many people don’t like these photos. They want that sour clichéd look we’ve gotten used to from photo-journalism essays and lifestyle magazines. Maybe these photos will elicit a smile in response!
Artlyst: What are your general thoughts about prisons in the U.S. especially in regards to privatisation?
DA: Eastern State Penitentiary is an interesting case study here. It was built in the 1820s with the idea of moving the criminal towards spiritual reflection and change, to make them “penitent” (hence the building is the origin of the word “penitentiary.”)
Contrast this with privatisation where the goal is to save money. But it isn’t this simple –
often privatization involves something called “social impact bonds” where if recidivism drops the investor’s payout increases. You might call it “pay for performance.” To me this economic determinism is a very simplistic, if not stupid approach to human behavior.
To me this change in penal reform over 200 years shows a coarsening of the culture.
Interview: Lizanne Merrill © Artlyst 2013