Posted by: anniebutts | October 18, 2010

Under Arrest: Now and Then

I’ve been thinking about the concept of a mug shot, so I decided to do a little internet digging and found some interesting things. I came across a few reviews for a book called Under Arrest: A History of the Twentieth Century in Mug Shots, and while I realize they’re not at all from the Victorian era, I did find that they were relevant to some of the topics we were discussing in class.

This book was written by a man named Giacomo Papi and contains an array of famous twentieth century mug shots. One review points out the modern take on a posed mug shot: “The mug shot becomes an opportunity to carve out one’s identity. Steve McQueen raises his hand in a peace sign. Jane Fonda holds up a fist. Michael Jackson’s face is a Peter Pan mask. Frank Sinatra poses like a model” (The Guardian). It’s hard to know if the Victorian motivation was similar, but the photos that we looked at in class may very well have been precursors to the posed mug shots of the twentieth century.

Another review discusses the unreliability of the mug shot:

“The most disturbing photographs in Under Arrest are those that fail, giving away nothing of the inner person. Stalin is dapper. The cannibal serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer appears geekier than Bill Gates (included here for a driving violation, age 22). Rudolf Hoess evinces all the menace of a wrongly-accused postman. He was the commandant of Auschwitz.” (Telegraph)

Even now, when technology is much more advanced, a solitary photograph cannot be trusted to give accurate details about its subject. Our senses can play tricks on us, physical appearance can change, and an altered expression or pose can completely transform the tone of a picture.




  1. Annie, I was about to post a link as a separate post when I found your entry! I also was interested in other forms of the mug shot, and I came across a Smithsonian review of the book Least Wanted.

    Here’s the link

    To get the gist of the article:

    “For a decade, the graphic designer collected old mug shots—he got them from a retired cop in Scranton, Pennsylvania, from a file cabinet bought at a Georgia auction and stuffed with pictures, and from eBay—until he had tens of thousands.
    Michaelson…got interested in underworld imagery after a friend gave him a Wanted poster of Patty Hearst. For his collection, however, he avoided famous people and notorious criminals in favor of what he calls “the small-timers, the least wanted.”…It is a sort of accidental tour of the crooked, down and out or unlucky. But because Michaelson, 51, knows little or nothing about most of the subjects, readers have to supply the backstory. Why, exactly, were the pair of Fresno cross-dressers—clad like modest housewives—arrested on successive Tuesdays in 1963? What sort of upbringing, if that’s the word, befell a Pennsylvania boy known as Mouse, who was arrested in the 1940s at ages 13, 14 and 18? We can only wonder.”

    “The New York Times called the pictures “a catalog of the human face and the things that can happen to it.” But Michaelson is interested in the photographs as pop artworks, too, à la Andy Warhol. To that end, he has blown some of them up to poster size, stamped them with a number and signed his name.”
    –This stuck out to me because of our discussions in class about who these pictures belong to. Is it the prisoner, the prison, the state, or, here, the man who finds and buys the photos and signs his name to them?

    This article also discusses comments that this collection received on flickr and how “Reading the comments, one gets the feeling that Michaelson’s mug shots encourage a kind of voyeurism, which doesn’t always bring out the best in people.”

    The last part I wanted to mention: “But we are drawn to the photographs by their undeniable authenticity. In this day of flickering instantaneous images and photo-manipulation software, the mugs stare back as rare artifacts. “In an increasingly digital world,” Michaelson notes in the book, “the hard copy original is an endangered species.” Yet there’s something else. The Least Wanted images intrigue us in the way a collection of old passport photos might not. A mug shot captures people at their lowest or most vulnerable. We look hard at their faces, calculating guilt or innocence. And then look harder.”
    –This quote stuck out to me because it insists on the authenticity of photographs because they have not been photoshopped/digitally altered/etc. As discussed in class, photos distort images, making one look older/younger/less noble/etc. than one really is, but I have been hesitant to label a photo as authentic/true–this quote made me adjust the language I’ve been using in my mind (the image might not be the representation of an authentic/true reality, but the photo itself may be authentic/untampered with).

    Sorry this response is so long! I just didn’t want there to be two full blog posts about mug shots when they could be grouped together.

  2. I will have to check out these two books. They look fascinating!

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