08/16/2012 08:47 am ET Updated Oct 16, 2012

"Prison Has Its Own Art Culture": Curator Dave Adler On The Clocktower's Poignant Inmate Photo Show

It is possibly one of the largest photography subcultures in America. It exists outside of the art market and outside of the labyrinthine patois of the art world. It's beyond the sphere of influence of galleries and museums, delimited by a type kind of institution altogether. Prison portraiture, known in New York as the "click-click" program, is practiced in nearly every U.S. penitentiary. Inmates pose in front of cheerful hand-painted backdrops depicting log cabins, lighthouses, city skylines, and beaches -- signifiers of un-incarcerated, middle-class life. The photographs are sent to friends and family on the outside.

In an exhibition currently on view at the Clocktower Gallery in New York, Dave Adler -- an artist and critic who teaches in prisons -- brings together a group of such photographs, making a case for their significance as both social documents and as works of art. In a country where inmates outnumber artists by leaps and bounds, it's difficult not to agree. According to a 2009 study, roughly 2 million artists live in the United States. By comparison, more than 2.5 million people are interned in U.S. prisons; and 6 million are under correctional supervision. Their visual culture is virtually unknown on the outside. In their stoicism, understatement, and indomitable sense of hope, the "click-clicks" reaffirm the poignancy and immediacy of photography in an image-fatigued world. Alder answered ARTINFO's questions about the project and revealed his plans to establish a prison photography institute.

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