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.