The Trickster Prince

Matt Houlbrook: mobile historian; beard growing, head shaving; occasional cycling.

Mugshots, crime and culture

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I’ve just seen the amazing mugshots of 1930s criminals from the north east of England posted at http://www.kuriositas.com/2012/08/policemugshots.html 

They’re a fascinating insight into both the social contexts of crime and the ways in which criminality is constructed. I wrote something about this recently: 

One way to track the tensions between citizenship and criminality and the problematic status of the ex-crook writer is through the different visual depictions of Lucas. As Michael Saler suggests, the ‘spectacularization’ of mass culture through technological advances like the handheld camera and new reproductive technologies created an everyday world saturated with images between the wars. The frontispiece photograph in Criminal Paris was thus part of a process of visual self-fashioning that existed in dialogue with the competing images produced by diverse individuals and institutions. Consider the mugshots circulated in the ‘Portraits of Persons Wanted’ and ‘Expert and Travelling Criminals’ supplement in the Police Gazette in March 1923 and July 1924. Arrested, fingerprinted and then photographed, Lucas’s gaze directly meets the eye of power. Following Alejandra Bronfman, we can read these images as mechanisms of surveillance. Filed with a detailed life history they were part of the process through which disciplinary institutions elaborated their capacity to render the criminal knowable and controllable. Shot from the front and in profile and within a tightly bounded frame they conformed to wider conventions for the visual representation of the criminal. Lucas was ‘caught in still photographs in a way that echoes the intentions of criminology and the penal apparatus … “seized” and … made available to the viewer for surveillance, inspection … judgement’. The staging of these images and their privileged documentary status materialised the essential truth of his criminality.

 

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