The idea that you can tell things about a person from their appearance underlies the entire point of dressing up, wearing make-up, and being concerned with our appearance. There are probably some things you might be able to assume from a person’s looks, but it’s still going to be pretty unreliable: you can’t tell someone’s a terrorist because they “look muslim” because “looking muslim” is a vague concept to begin with.
What about people who look like criminals?
She has an honest face, doesn’t she? Young and pretty, maybe she’s a prostitute? Nope:
Crime: malicious injury to property and wounding with intent to do grievous bodily harm. When a police officer arrived to arrest Esther Eggers for malicious damage she attacked him, causing serious injury. Eggers was sentenced to 12 months prison. Aged 22.
What can we tell about her other than that her clothes are more expensive?
Convicted of conspiracy to procure an abortion. Lillian Boland worked as a secretary for an illegal abortionist who operated out of a dentist’s surgery on Oxford Street, Paddington. Boland protested her innocence and ignorance of the ‘doctor’s’ work; however, the court decided she must have had detailed knowledge of the business and handed her a suspended sentence of 12 months hard labour.
It’s funny to me because I see these clothes as “vintage” and know that “vintage” is expensive. I am sure that Ms Boland, were she alive today, would be shocked at what that outfit would fetch on Ebay.
Dalton has an impressive scar on his face. Must be a violent man. Or maybe someone who worked near dangerous machinery – which is to say pretty much anyone who wasn’t an office-worker in 1910.
Special Photograph no. 129. A cropped print of this photograph appears in a police photo book from the 1920s, annotated in pencil “magsmen”, with no further information offered.
A “magsman” is a con artist. Perhaps this pair were politicians.
Ellis looks like a bad hombre.
Special Photograph no. 86. The precise circumstances surrounding this picture are unknown, but Ellis is found in numerous police records of the 1910s, 20s and 30s. He is variously listed as a housebreaker, a shop breaker, a safe breaker, a receiver and a suspected person. A considerably less self-assured Ellis appears in the NSW Criminal Register of 29 August 1934 (no. 206). His convictions by then include ‘goods in custody, indecent langauge, stealing, eceiving and throwing a missile.’ His MO includes the entry ‘seldom engages in crime in company, but possessing a most villainous character, he influences associates to commit robberies, and he arranges for the disposal of the proceeds.’ It adds that he has the nicknames ‘Curley’ – his hair is thinning – and ‘Deafy’, as he is by then quite deaf.
Indecent language! Fucking hell, you can get convicted for that!?!
Valerie Lowe, 15
Valerie Lowe and Joseph Messenger were arrested in 1921 for breaking into an army warehouse and stealing boots and overcoats to the value of 29 pounds 3 shillings. The following year, when this photograph were taken, they were charged with breaking and entering a dwelling. Those charges were eventually dropped but they were arrested again later that year for stealing a saddle and bridle from Rosebery Racecourse. In 1923 Lowe was convicted of breaking into a house at Enfield and stealing money and jewellery to the value of 40 pounds
Special Photograph no. 1313. Munro is listed in the NSW Police Gazette, 1924 as charged, along with Harris Hunter, with receiving stolen goods to the value of 536 pounds 4 shillings and 1 penny, the property of Snow’s department store.
I’ll stop here – there are about a hundred of them at the Syndey Police Museum [sydney museum]
Though they were taken in a situation of dubious consent, in somewhat difficult conditions, they amount to a brilliant series of portraits.
One thing we learn from these portraits is that it’s really hard to tell anything about a person from the clothes and face. Galton used mug shots like these to layer into composite images, looking for common features – and robo-profilers are still pursuing Galton’s mistake [stderr]
This fellow may look like a creepy pedophile but he’s Cesare Lombroso, a criminologist and physiognomist who tried to demonstrate that criminality was an essential part of some people’s nature [wikipedia] He was a professor of psychology and eventually ran an asylum: just the kind of person who you’d want for the job – someone willing to convict you based on your appearance. Apparently they didn’t have mirrors or irony meters back in Lombroso’s time.
There were earlier physiognomists, including Kaspar Lavater [wikipedia] who was working with sketches, before the invention of photography. There was also a Paris prefect of police, whose name I forget (and I am not going to call dad about it!) who built a card catalog that prefigured J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI catalog of culprits – the catalog was indexed with multiple indices: if you were looking for a footpad with a scar on their face you would cross-index the two and it would produce a list of suspects.
One thing that’s unavoidable, from the collection of mug shots: there is a distinct class bias. There are no rich people at all and the criminals are mostly guilty of subsistence crimes – trying to survive in the world – a world where the apparatus of policing exists to track you and make sure you stay in your place. The punishments seem to be as arbitrary then as they do now – you can steal millions in a stock scam and be in a low security prison for 6 months, or you can get a year’s labor for being an abortionist’s secretary.
It’s all wasted effort, but some of the artifacts that remain are quite beautiful.
I’ve been a fan of photography my whole life, and I spent about a decade doing my own wet plate ambrotypes: mixing the silver nitrate, nitric acid, and water – coating plates with nitrocellulose dissolved in ether and spiked with cadmium bromide, etc. The entire process fascinates me, and – at this point – I can look at most photos and tell you a lot about the processes that were used. These mugshots look like early celluloid film (gelatine chlorobromide emulsion) shot with a 5×7″ press camera using natural light, probably developed in an old developer like Agfa Rodinal (which is an aminophenol that partially stains the halides as it reduces them) This is just a delicious process and looking at these pictures makes my hands twitch to get them wet in the darkroom again.