For Prisoners, an Escape as Art

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A Manhattan gallery exhibit highlights universally humanizing psychology: the trend in photos of inmates, taken by inmates, in front-wall murals of the outside world (painted by inmates).

Artist, critic, and documentary-maker David Adler had been teaching in prison when he discovered the "click click" phenomenon: photos of prisoners taken by prisoners in front-wall murals painted by prisoners, dreaming of life on the outside. It seems that this is a regular feature of prisons in the U.S., with murals varying regionally. The photographs, taken for family and pen pals, are particularly posed, soft, un-menacing, with the festive, contrived feel of a holiday photo booth at the mall, but also DIY and genuine in their meagerness.

Adler, who focuses on the intersection of art and economics, has been collecting these photographs for five years. He found that "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." The Age of Innocence is on view now through August 31, 2012 at the Clocktower Gallery.

All photos courtesy Dave Adler Collection and Clocktower Gallery, 2012.

A version of this post also appears on Flavorpill, an Atlantic partner site.

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