For the next instalment of my meander through the photographic alphabet I have chosen a form of portraiture which, hopefully, does not appear in many people’s family albums – the criminal identification portrait or ‘mug shot’.The term ‘mug shot’ to describe a portrait of a criminal seems to have first been used in the United States in the early 20th century. The word ‘mug’ has a much longer history, having been used as slang for a face since the early 18th century. One theory is that the usage was derived from the common practice of making drinking mugs decorated with grotesque human faces.
The use of photography to record the likenesses of criminals can be traced back to the 1840s when a few local police forces began to commission daguerreotypists to take portraits of habitual offenders for so-called ‘Rogues’ Galleries’.
The introduction of the wet plate process in the 1850s, with the possibility of making multiple prints from glass negatives, stimulated the production and distribution of criminal portraits. However, while photography was increasingly used, there was no systematic method of photographing criminals and no attempt at standardisation. Local commercial photographers were usually employed and the portraits they produced are often indistinguishable from conventional studio portraits of the time.
This situation changed in the 1870s. In March 1870, The Photographic News announced:
“Photography as a means of identifying criminals is henceforth to be introduced into all prisons as a necessary part of the prison routine.”
The Prevention of Crimes Act, which came into effect in November the following year made compulsory the photographing of every prisoner in England and Wales. The official parliamentary report for 1872 stated that during the first year 115 gaols had photographed 43,634 prisoners.
Strict guidelines were laid down by the Home Office as to how these portraits should be taken, drawing heavily on techniques previously employed for anthropological photography. The now familiar convention of full-face and profile portraits was adopted in the mid-1890s. Prior to this, a mirror was sometimes employed, placed on the prisoner’s shoulder, to capture both views on the same photograph.
As official documents, British mug shots should really only be found in public archives. However, examples do occasionally turn up at auction and on the private market. We are fortunate in having several examples, covering a wide date range, in our collection.
In America, mug shots are classed as being in the public domain. There is, of course, a website where you can view thousands of them, including mug shots of celebrities such as Mel Gibson, Michael Jackson and, perhaps most famously, Hugh Grant.
Further reading and interesting links
- Criminal portraits from Tyne & Wear Archives in The Commons on Flickr
- More mug shots from Tyne & Wear Archives on Flickr
- Prison records at The National Archives
- The Prevention of Crimes Act, 1871
- Peter Hamilton and Roger Hargreaves, The Beautiful and the Damned: The Creation of Identity in Nineteenth century Photography. London: Lund Humphries, 2001.
- Bill Jay, ‘Prison Portraits’ in Cyanide & Spirits: An Inside-Out View of Early Photography, Munich: Nazraeli Press, 1991, pp. 101-116.
- John Sobieszek, Ghost in the Shell: Photography and the Human Soul, 1850-2000, Cambridge: MIT Press, 1999.
- John Tagg, The Burden of Representation, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1988