If you’re feeling too good about the world, consider this: There are more than six million people under “correctional supervision” in the US, and more than 2.5 million people in prison—there are about as many people behind bars as there are in all of Chicago. Not surprisingly, there are all kinds of subcultures and customs that uncaged people like you or me have never heard of, not even if you’ve watched every episode of Oz. One of these subcultures is the making of “click clicks,” which are photos of inmates in front of hand-painted backdrops that are sent to friends and family on the outside. The backdrops and photos are all created by prisoners, and though the resulting images are intended just for personal communication, they’ve got the odd, off-kilter but striking look of the outsider art at its best. David Adler, an artist, critic, and documentary maker who occasionally teaches in prisons, came across click clicks some time ago and became fascinated by them, collecting hundreds of them from inmates all over the country. He’s turned a few of them into an installation on display at Clocktower Gallery in Manhattan this summer (the gallery happens to be on the top floor of a city court, ironically), and after taking a look at them I called David to learn more.
VICE: Hi David. So how did you come across these images when you were teaching at the prison you were teaching at?
David Adler: In the visiting room there are all these murals that prisoners can choose from to be photographed in front of, and 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.” I just thought it was something they do at that particular prison. Later, I was at a party with a lot of filmmakers and also a lot of prison activists, and at this party was a prison priest, who said, “It’s not just at your prison. It’s at every single prison in New York state. It’s called the ‘click-click program.’ But they like to play it down.” When I called New York state prison publicists, they said, “There’s no ‘click click program.’” But there is! It’s just a part of prison culture. Federal prisons, state prisons—it’s all across the country. I thought, “Wow. This is a huge subculture.” I like the fact that no one prompts the prisoners to do this, they make click clicks on their own.
Is an official program, or is it just something that they let the prisoners do?
It varies by state. I think it’s classified more as a service. It’s just part of prison life. It’s so unremarkable to anyone in prison that they could not believe that I’d be talking about it. But it’s so remarkable to people outside of prison, that I can’t believe more people aren’t talking about it. I was really interested that there was this alternative art system out there. Moving beyond the sociology of it, I actually consider the images to be art. Overall, I think what you’ll find is that what’s unsettling to people is that the prisoners do not look menacing. When I showed the images to people, they were expecting really menacing, Annie Lebowitz-type photos of someone glaring at the camera with pain in their eyes.
But of course they want to smile and look good for the camera like pretty much everyone else. Some of them do look beaten down though.
They are. There is a sadness to it. Part of the sadness is that they’re trying not to look menacing but look middle-class. A lot of the images feature backgrounds that are tokens of middle-class life, like beach scenes that the inmates will never ever have access to. They’re just trying to keep it together.
It’s like looking at family portraits of families that are falling apart. They want to look good in a photo at least.
Exactly. Whereas outsiders would want to see the pathos of their worse times, this is how they’d like to be perceived.
How do you acquire these photos?
Getting the photos is very, very easy. I just write to prisoners. There are prisoner pen pal sites and I’ll just write to them that way, and there are prisoner activist sites, which I’ll use to send out a query letter. I should say I have someone helping me a lot on this project, Emily Horrowitz, a criminologist who’s involved in a lot of prison activism. She will send out mass letters, and the letters just start coming in.
Are there certain backdrop themes that get used over and over again?
First of all there are some signs of regionalism—backdrops of covered bridges in New England, some cowboy themes in the Southwest, a lot of mountains in the Northwest. My next step for this project is to start some multidisciplinary academic center to study precisely what’s going on regionally, because it’s too big for one person to understand. A common theme is paintings with vague imagery, just abstract patterns, and there is a reason for that. 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. I have a couple of the backdrops too.
Like, the physical, actual backdrops?
A warden sent them to me, and they’re huge. I have like a thousand photos but only three backdrops, but one goal for the center would be to collect more and more and more, and for that, rather than working with the prisoners, we’d have to work with the wardens. But they’re actually OK with it. This is already a service they provide to prisoners, this is not one of the darker sides in the prison system, I call this one of the lighter sides.
What sort of materials are used to make the backdrops?
Specifically the ones I have are always on canvas. Also, they’re on cinderblocks. Actually, a warden just complained to me that they found a great backdrop painter and gave the backdrop painter a bunch of paint but it turns out he was stealing all the paint and trying to sell it. So, you know, there are issues going on in this system. It’s not middle-class life. It’s a prison and you have to accept that. What I found is there’s certain paintings where there’s an incongruity between like the very delicate themes and the fact that they’re on cinderblocks. So, that’s kind of upsetting. You’re not transported by the backdrop; it’s pretty clear that you’re going nowhere.
David Adler’s The Age of Innocence will be at the Clocktower Gallery (108 Leonard Street, 13th Floor, Manhattan, New York) until the end of August. There’s some other cool stuff there as well. More info here.