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Mug Shot Gallery

Jennifer Brandel

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Once Bitten
(Courtesy Steidl & Partners Publishing)
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Photography collector Mark Michaelson is fascinated by the people who don't make it in the history books. When he went to Rome last year, he wasn't interested in the palaces. He wanted to see the slave quarters. "I wasn't really thinking about Caesar or Marc Antony -- I was thinking about the guy who lays the bricks. What did he do at night? Where did he go home to? What did his house look like?"

Michaelson is the same way about photographs. He's never been into celebrity glossies. He collects old passports, ID cards and newspaper clippings. He looks for ordinary people from the past.

Michaelson's hobby turned into an obsession when he was browsing eBay, and he came across a mug shot from the 1930s of a petty thief from Minnesota. It was stapled to a card with fingerprints and a crime report. Michaelson describes him as "a man who was arrested for having two pairs of pants in his possession that he could not account for."

The Latino man had curly carefully coiffed hair, wore a tie, scarf and plaid button up shirt. He gave the camera a deep, stoic stare. The photo itself was a beautiful, high-quality silver print.

Michaelson immediately fell in love with mug shots. He says they may be small, but they're heavy. "The thing that gets me excited about mug shots is something that makes them different from a passport photo or a driver's license photo: when the shutter clicks on that camera, there's trouble."

He started buying mug shots off the Internet and from antique dealers. Some of them date back to the 1870s. At first it was just a three-ring binder's worth. But over the course of a decade, he accumulated stacks of binders, then boxes and boxes and boxes filled with mug shots. They now fill most of his tiny one-bedroom apartment. It is the largest collection of mug shots in the world.

"I have rich people and poor people, I have children, old folks," he explains. "I've got every kind of hooker and transvestite you can possibly imagine." A fashion historian has already used Michaelson's collection to map clothing trends. And the crime reports document the days when one could be arrested for "immoral purposes," huckstering and flim-flam.

But Michaleson is interested in these photos as a collection of individuals. Like a kid digging through baseball cards, Michaelson sifts through piles of mug shots, hunting for his favorite faces. "Different photos grab me for different reasons, but there's definitely a feeling. I know it when I see it. It reaches out, it grabs you, it pokes, it pinches you."

He pulls out a photo of a weathered old man with sad, sunken eyes looking for forgiveness. Another keeper is a 12-year-old car thief with a slick blond pompadour. He gives the camera a hardened sneer.

Michaelson describes a favorite, "This one! Look at this black lady with this hairdo; 1941 and she's got like some kind of Grace Jones squared off Afro in the profile. And she almost looks like an African Queen or something. She's got this nobility about her."

Michaelson's favorites end up on his Flickr site or a gallery wall. And the ones he doesn't like stay home. "I have some at home in a box at the bottom of my closet. These guys that just look so evil. I mean they're scary to look at. I don't even want to handle the photos because I feel like that evil is going to rub off some how." Michaelson isn't interested in scaring people. He wants to inspire empathy.

On opening night of his "Least Wanted" exhibit in Chicago, it's clear that he has succeeded. Gallery goers aren't seeing these as faces of "the bad guys." They're seeing friends and family.

One woman remarks, "I see things in all of these faces that remind me of somebody I know."

"Our buddy Kunal Kalkarnie looks exactly like that guy over there!" one man says.

"You start seeing people on the walls, and then you start looking for family. And then you turn around and look at the room and you're like 'Whoah, they're all in mug shots and don't know it!'" another says.

In one corner, the photos inspire two young men to break into an old Ukrainian folk song. It's about a bird that escapes from his cage only to land in jail. The singers have an unusual audience. The eyes of the accused gaze at them from the past. These souls may have escaped their mortal coil, but they're captured on film forever.

  • Music Bridge:
    Sewn Two
    Artist: Mountains
    CD: Sewn (Apestaartje)


  • Comment | Refresh

  • By Bonnie Brayshaw

    From Saint Charles, NB, 02/18/2008

    As a kid in a very small Midwestern town, I got in the habit of walking up to the post office occasionally to look at the posters for the FBI's ten most wanted pinned up on the bulletin board. For days afterward, every unfamiliar face I saw looked like one of those dangerous characters. It added excitement to my quiet rural life.

    By Jim Lucio

    From Baltimore, MD, 02/17/2008

    A true connoisseur.

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