Meet the Artists: Dave Adler

Dave Adler


Dave Adler is a London and NY based artist and critic. He is interested in the intersection of arts and economics, which he has written extensively about, most recently for Frieze Magazine. Adler has produced numerous arts documentaries for the BBC and taught documentary filmmaking at a US prison. His prison photography project has been profiled in Aperture Magazine and exhibited at The 3rd Athens Biennale 2011 (curators Xenia Kalpaktsoglou, Poka-Yio and Augustine Zenakos a.k.a. XYZ, and Nicolas Bourriaud). Dave Adler is establishing a national multidisciplinary center for the study of the US prison photography system with the criminologist Dr. Emily Horowitz of St. Francis College, Brooklyn Heights.


Inmate_1 Backdrop_1 Inmate_2 Backdrop_2 Inmate_3


First lets start with your name and background.

My name is Dave Adler and my background is in documentary film. A lot of my documentaries are about art topics, specifically about artists, but sometimes they are more about American vernacular culture, which is wide ranging by definition. A book of mine, called Life & Cuisine of Elvis Presley became a BBC documentary called “The Burger and the King.” A more recent documentary I did for French TV was called Mafia New York, which was about New York mafia neighborhoods that are very ancient, but in a mafia style.

And you’re an art critic as well?

Yes! I do occasionally write for Frieze about topics like that, but with an economic angle.

I’ve read that you’re interested in the intersection of arts and economics as well, which is actually how you approached your project with the prisoners in the backdrop.

That is true. A confluence of factors created my interest in this project with this topic. I think, for one thing, people are generally bored by oligarch art, which is what I call it, the art that’s “for the rich by the rich.” Everyone else is bored by it and don’t really know what to turn to next. I don’t really know if there’s a parallel art system among people with no money or at the end of the road, so to speak, but they have their own way of approaching art and it’s a vibrant, active, and vast system. Yes, really the size of the system is what I think is critical about this.

You taught documentary filmmaking in the U.S. prisons as well, what started your fascination with the U.S. prison system?

Both my grandfathers were judges, but besides that I have no connections to criminals except through them. There were a lot of lawyers around me in my life, but I’m not truly connected to any real criminal advocates. I was doing a favor for a friend who was working in the college program at the local prison that was part of a rehab process where the inmates got their college degree at the same time. I went in as a volunteer to teach several classes on standard documentary college courses, such as critical theory and the assessment of a documentary.

When you were teaching and working with these inmates, did you feel any connections to their past backgrounds and personalities?

What was fascinating about the women’s max security prison is that they were usually there for killing someone, and what I noticed was that I would describe a lot of the prisoners as middle class, but something had just gone wrong, typically with the husband or boyfriend. Rather than being violent street offenders, they were actually middle class people who had had problems of self-control in their past. I mean obviously they had some sort of violent incident in their past, but that was not linked to a typical middle class lifestyle, which was very surprising as they were often very articulate, well-meaning, had a good sense of humor, but were simply behind bars. That’s what I think is interesting about the prison photos with the backdrops they chose. The whole system to me is one about self-presentation, and self-presentation is often one of almost a middle class situation, or at least attempting to pretend to be in a middle class situation, and that is the poignancy of the photos since it’s perfectly clear that no one is in that situation.

Did you see any kind of change or exit of relief on the prisoners’ psyche?

It depended on the prisoner. Some would be more self-aware or would be more brooding, but not every prisoner. I think the photos have a key factor for people outside because it’s a way family members can exhibit their relative in prison, and feel less embarrassed by it because they’re not pictured behind bars. It’s very helpful for people outside of prison.

How did this project come about?

First of all, it’s their project in prison. I don’t personally know the origin of prison photography or how it came about, and that’s one thing I’m researching at this academic center in Brooklyn at the Institute for Peace and Justice at St. Francis College with criminologists who are trying to get a handle on the origins of the system, the regional variations etc. I do not know how the system spontaneously erupted, but I do know it’s spontaneous and what is critical for me is that a lot of artists who go to a prison intervene prisoners or collaborate with them, which is nice. That’s totally not what is going on here, I’m totally hands-off there documenting it. What is important to me is that this is an unprompted, self-created system; I’m not there to tangle it. I stumbled upon prison photography by teaching documentary film where I first noticed the backdrop. This was an unprompted process outside of the confines of art and prison and it might even tend to be classified as a service for the prison. I think the prison system uses the service to prisoners, rather than art, which is also reflected in the outside world.

When you meet the inmates that actually made the backdrops themselves, do you see an increase in positivity in their personalities because they’re expressing themselves?

The letters I receive are very upbeat. What’s important for me is that this is all about self-presentation, but self-presentation is quite positive. Except for notorious prisoners, most people have forgotten about them, so it’s encouraging to have this positive self-presentation in a difficult circumstance. They’re able to present a positive outlook for the photo.

What is the most creatively induced prison you’ve come across?

I would say more progressive states take more of an interest in this, especially Washington and Indiana. New York State has been a bit less responsive to my queries.

Are there any visual statistics we could look at to help get a better understanding of that?

I can’t prove that really, it’s just that people who have given me backdrops tend to be from more cooperative states, that’s the only visual stat that I have. In terms of what’s going on inside the painting, I can’t say whether the atmosphere is translated into a new aesthetic or if you could see it in the painting. For instance, if you went to different art schools you could see different work, which also depends on the teacher and the environment. I don’t know if a penitentiary in say, Louisiana, is the Yale of prison photography though. I will say I’ve gotten photographs from prisoners that are not backdrops, but are really wonderful photographs. They’re just not part of my project, they fall out of the rivers of my focus. It’s not a free system, but there’s some sort of control in how they get across their self-presentation and their look. I would say that the prison project has a nice balance between painting, photography, economics, and also just has a conceptual quality to it.

Do you see this whole system being popularized?

Yes I do! I think it’s this system’s moment because people are bored of this celebrity-driven blitz art. It’s working for the people in it, but the rest of the world is yawning. I would say the presentation skills in the Chelsea subculture are still somewhat behind the outside world and that’s a problem in terms of a greater, wider acceptance. There’s an article in The New Republic saying that the current trend right now is morbid, outsider art. It’s the current zeitgeist. I find the prisoners to be a very interesting subculture to document. It may not be what the market is looking for but so be it, it’s for them, it’s by them. Doing this spills out into the outside after being inside all day, every day, and it helps their families, and there is this wonderful collaborative movement to it.

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