Working on Mark Michaelson’s heartstopping book Least Wanted: A Century of American Mugshots sent me around in circles trying to put words to the emotional experience of viewing thousands of old mugshots. That process inspired this project, and my essay that appears in the book is reproduced below.
The Accidental Beauty of the System
Scan the faces. You’ll come to one that’s a perfect, antique doppelganger of someone you know. Or later, as you walk through a crowd, you’ll see them, the long dead accused, their bowler hats traded for baseball caps. Beware of false revelations. Show someone else the match you’ve found; chances are they won’t see any resemblance. The lesson is that recognition doesn’t require a complete confluence of appearances. It only takes a fragment of the grammar of a face, a tilted smile, some crookedness around the eyes. It’s metonymy in action: the part standing for the whole. We see and we don’t see. The beholder’s eye.
It happens because these faces are a little like ghosts, elusive and persistent in the imagination. They resonate and linger. They make us feel: a shudder, a pinch, a rent in the heart. They churn our imaginations. They burrow into us.
Take this girl, Oklahoma 1927. Her serene composure, like a Botticelli Madonna in the portrait shot, set against the sorrowful downward glance of her profile. Blink of an eye. Snap of a shutter. Something breaks. What happened between the portrait’s calm and the profile’s desolation?
We can invent many answers, and all of them may seem true. Certainly the missing moment in which her mood turns is the reason she haunts us. It’s what the French philosopher Roland Barthes called a photograph’s “punctum” (Latin for pierce or prick): “that accident which pricks me (but also bruises me, is poignant to me).” Anything might prick us: how some of the young girls preen like fashion models, or the man with his eyes closed to the camera’s probing, the boy with a ring of hair flattened by an absent hat, the frayed and dirty clothing, the wandering eyes. According to Barthes, what defines these details and makes them stick with us is that they show the glimmer of a whole life outside the frame. We gain the sense that we are looking at a “necessarily real thing which has been placed before the lens.” The visible shift in the Oklahoma girl’s countenance makes even more room for her realness, her life outside the frame. Is she thinking of the way her mother’s lips pull tight in disappointment, or about a lost love, or is it just that one of the cops milling around behind the photographer said something nasty about her pretty face? When we imagine from these piercing details, we don’t think of it as invention, but as archeology, our discovery of something real.
Struggling to write a portrait of Alabama sharecroppers in the dustbowl-1930s, silver-tongued James Agee found that language failed him. He thought the book that became Let Us Now Praise Famous Men should have held no words, only photographs, and “the rest would be fragments of cloth, bits of cotton, lumps of earth, records of speech, pieces of wood and iron, phials of odors, plates of food and of excrement…a piece of the body torn out by its roots might be more to the point.”
The mugshots that prick us are like that, a piece of the body torn out by its roots. And alongside the shivers of their realness is something else: an insistence, an intention. Agee’s partner, photographer Walker Evans legendarily told the sharecroppers to “compose themselves.” He insinuated that his camera was a passive instrument of his subjects’ self-representation. It was no such thing, how could it be? He snapped the shutter, selected the shots, cropped the edges. But the mugshots, artlessly one-take operations, are nothing if not self-composures. Ordinary people in the days before the camera’s ubiquity, having perhaps never posed for one before. They’re unforgettable even as they’re unremarkable, at once ordinary and shockingly individual, touched with poetry and pathos alike. One after another, faces in a crowd, an epic catalog of the accused. The raw stuff of humanity, making itself insistently and irresistibly plain.
And irresistibly specific. It’s the accidental beauty of a system—criminal identification—that was designed with only the most practical of concerns. What is striking about the faces in this rogue’s gallery is not their roguishness at all, but their irrepressible individuality.