The exploitation of mug shots as viral clickbait is an artifact of the digital age, a natural ingredient for the internet chumbucket. But the publication and dissemination of mug shots is nearly as old as photography itself. The new technology was immediately pressed into surveillance service by police departments, some of whom began photographing suspects as early as the 1840s in so-called “rogues’ galleries.” By 1886, mug shots and criminology were such popular subjects that New York police chief Thomas Byrnes published the book Professional Criminals of America, filled with dozens of mug shots and biographies.
The mug shot assumed its most familiar form of side-by-side frontal and profile shot in 1888, an innovation of French police officer Alphonse Bertillon, who was pursuing his interests in biometric data used for profiling and surveillance. Bertillon “employed photography to systematically record alleged offenders’ unique physical attributes,” writes Rian Dundon at Timeline, “like noses, ears, scars and tattoos—as a way to bank reliable data on individual criminals.” (He also pioneered crime scene photos.)
Photographic surveillance techniques developed alongside the popularity of phrenology and the eugenics of Charles Darwin’s cousin Francis Galton, who coined the term “eugenics” and created a series of “composite portraits of criminal types” in 1877 as a tool for determining “whether specific facial features could be associated with distinct types of criminality,” as the Metropolitan Museum of Art notes.
Galton used composite portraiture to target “segments of the population whose members were considered feeble or socially inferior, including the mentally ill, tuberculosis patients, and Jews.” His theories contributed to the widely held belief that certain physical features, like thick lips or low brows, were strongly correlated with criminal behavior. The idea became a racist justification for singling out already marginalized ethnic and immigrant communities for added scrutiny and maltreatment by the police, and exempted what Galton called the “healthy and talented” classes from such abuses.
By the early 1900’s, newspapers began publishing mugshots, and it is in the archives of such periodicals that photographer and artist Arne Svenson found identifying information for 500 mugshots from Northern California that he discovered in a box of negatives. “I read through every copy of the daily newspaper(s) from 1901 to 1908 to find news of the men pictured in the images,” he says. The project became a book called Prisoners, “a collection of 70 images with accompanying narrative text on each subject.”
On each of the prints, Svenson etched the name and alleged crime above the head of the suspect. All taken by a local Marysville, CA photographer named Clara Smith, a family portrait photographer by trade, the mug shots display “a shocking beauty,” writes Suzan Sherman at Bomb. “To understand a man through his image, name, and alleged crime is a glimmer into a story aching to be told.”
The back of the book is comprised of Svenson’s research from two local newspapers of the time, as well as prison records from San Quentin and Folsom Prison. In expanding beyond the surface, we find that a man accused of petit larceny had actually only stolen a jacket to keep himself warm. These documents also prove that racial tensions then are not far removed from today’s—when W.M. Brown, a black man, resisted a policeman “unless shown a star or other warrant of arrest,” he was charged with disturbing the peace. Arne Svenson has released these men to us with sympathy, an otherwise impossible opportunity for many of them in their own time.