Documentary filmmaker brings prison portraiture to Eastern State Penitentiary

    The paintings can be a little garish: not-quite trompe l’oeil waterfalls, mountains, and seascapes. An abstracted floral field. A roughly brushed urban scene. The people posing in front of them are smiling, mostly. One subject is wearing blue scrubs with tell-tale, prison-issue markings down the leg.

    These images are from “Visions of the Free World,” an installation of projected prisoner photographs at the Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia.

    “Virtually every prison does this,” said David Adler, a New York-based documentary filmmaker who was surprised to discover the prevalence of hand-painted backdrops inside most prisons where inmates would have their photos taken, to send out to family and friends.

    “Those in the prison world are completely familiar to these backdrops, this is not news,” said Adler. “They’re a little surprised when I would ask them . . . it’s like saying to you, ‘Wait, you take school photos?’ It takes them a minute, that I find it shocking. Because I’m in what’s called the Free World.”

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    Adler has spent years writing letter to prisoners about their photos and how they were taken, most often by a fellow inmate, usually with a very cheap camera. Because inmates typically do not have access to email, the photos are all hard-copy, suitable for mailing out in envelopes.

    Some prisoners doodle on those envelopes, which Adler has included in the show.

    “Some people don’t like the photos,” said Adler. “They are not what they expect, because the prisoners do not look menacing. They’re smiling.”

    Eastern State Penitentiary is hosting a reception with David Adler, Friday, May 10 at 5:30 p.m.  “Visions of the Free World” is on display through November 30. 


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