Friday, September 15, 2006

Daguerre's dossier

Steven Kasher Gallery, New York
1932 Pittsburgh Police mug shot of Prisoner 25747, a miner accused of being a Communist (thus the red card).

These days, photographers are rarely accused of stealing the souls of their subjects, but a certain unease about being photographed remains. Why else would so many words for the act of photography, like "shoot" or "take," suggest acts of aggression or violation. Nowhere are these tensions more visible than in police mug shots.

New York art director Mark Michaelson has amassed a collection of some 10,000 examples of this genre over the last decade. Now, according to Randy Kennedy writing in the New York Times, some of them will be on display in a new book and a gallery exhibit.
A decade ago Mark Michaelson did not care much about criminals or the preservation of their likenesses. He was working as an art director at New York magazine. He thought of himself “more as a pack rat than a collector,” he said, occasionally buying art photos or the originals of illustrations. But then one year for his birthday a friend gave him a vintage Patty Hearst wanted poster that jump-started an interest in crime ephemera. Aided and abetted by eBay, he began to collect stray mug shots, a fascination that grew into an obsession, one that eventually turned his apartment into an archive and his life into a strange kind of scavenger hunt.

This week, his private mania will be given a public life. Steidl and the Steven Kasher Gallery in Chelsea are publishing “Least Wanted: A Century of American Mugshots,” a plaintive, rollicking selection of pictures from Mr. Michaelson’s extensive rogues’ gallery, many of which he has put up for sale at an exhibition that opened yesterday and runs through Oct. 28 at the Kasher Gallery.
Police have been taking mug shots for more than 150 years.
Some experts say that the first photographs used for law enforcement were probably taken of prisoners in Belgium in 1843 and 1844, possibly so that the prisoners could be identified if they committed other crimes after being released. By 1857 the New York police had adopted the practice, opening a gallery so that the public could come in to see the daguerreotypes of what Mr. Michaelson calls “hookers, stooges, grifters and goons.”

The New York Times reported later that year, “Already, some arrests have been made by means of these portraits, and three or four of the thieves so unenviably distinguished have quitted New York for parts unknown, convinced that Daguerre had put an end to their chances of success in this locality.”
In her classic "On Photography," Susan Sontag touched on the history of photography as evidence.
Photographs furnish evidence. Something we hear about, but doubt, seems proven when we're shown a photograph of it. In one version of its utility, the camera record incriminates. Starting with their use by the Paris police in the murderous roundup of Communards in June 1871, photographs became a useful tool of modern states in the surveillance and control of their increasingly mobile populations. In another version of its utility, the camera record justifies. A photograph passes for incontrovertible proof that a given thing happened. The picture may distort; but there is always a presumption that something exists, or did exist, which is like what's in the picture. Whatever the limitations (through amateurism) or pretensions (through artistry) of the individual photographer, a photograph -- any photograph -- seems to have a more innocent, and therefore more accurate, relation to visible reality than do other mimetic objects.
Michaelson collected the photos not for their value as evidence, of course, but for their visual qualities.
Mr. Michaelson said that in collecting the mug shots and in winnowing them for the book he was motivated less by historical concerns than by his eye, which sometimes led him to the odder Diane Arbus-esque portraits, to those that had a certain revenant quality and even to those that were age-speckled or torn. “I was looking for the ones that moved me,” he said. “It was all my little visual fetishes rolled into one.”
It's an odd process whereby these found objects are transformed into art on the walls of a gallery. In winnowing through these fragments of old police dossiers for "the odder Diane Arbus-eque portraits," Michaelson is, like Arbus in much of her work, deliberately decontextualizing the subjects of the photographs. Who were these people? Were they guilty? Innocent? Are they victims of circumstance, or common criminals? Do they have families? Wives? Husbands? Children? Who knows?

Instead, plucked by a collector's hand from Daguerre's dossier and mounted on a gallery wall, they have become gorgeous freaks -- or, as the headline of the Times article puts it, "Grifters and Goons, Framed (and Matted)."

1 comment:

Marty Weil said...

Interesting ephemera. The area of crime ephemera is something of speciality--very rare and hard to find, I imagine. Great post.