March 11, 2018

Extraordinary Mugshots of Turn-of-the-Century Prisoners

“Some years ago I discovered a cache of glass negative mug shots taken in the early 20th century; each negative was inscribed with the man’s name and alleged crime. In order to research the life of each man pictured in the 500 negatives, I spent the next three years traveling back and forth from New York to the small Northern California town where the photos were taken. I discovered the photographs were taken by Clara Smith, a town photographer more accustomed to taking images of brides and babies than newly arrested suspects. The only extant records of the men's crimes were the newspapers of the time, so I read through every copy of the daily newspaper(s) from 1901 to 1908 to find news of the men pictured in the images. The project resulted in the book, Prisoners, a collection of 70 images with accompanying narrative text on each subject.” — Arne Svenson

In Prisoners, New York artist and photographer Arne Svenson presents some two dozen portraits of turn-of-the-century prisoners, which the artist developed from found negatives. Each image (about one to two feet) is a diptych mug-shot (full face and profile), with the criminal's name and crime etched into the emulsion and visible above the subject's head. The crimes range from petty larceny to murder in various ages and races.


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