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M is for… Mug shots, the criminal identification portrait

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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’.

Page from album of prison record photography [Samuel Wilson], 2 July 1903 © National Media Museum, Bradford / SSPL. Creative Commons BY-NC-SAWilson was a cattle drover from Ovenden who was convicted of stealing a silver watch.

Page from album of prison record photography [Samuel Wilson], 2 July 1903 © National Media Museum, Bradford / SSPL. Creative Commons BY-NC-SA
Wilson was a cattle drover from Ovenden who was convicted of stealing a silver watch.

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’.

Gandolfi prison / extending bellows camera, c. 1940 © National Media Museum, Bradford / SSPL. Creative Commons BY-NC-SA

Gandolfi prison / extending bellows camera, c. 1940 © National Media Museum, Bradford / SSPL. Creative Commons BY-NC-SA

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.

Criminal photography posing chair, c. 1880 © National Media Museum, Bradford / SSPL. Creative Commons BY-NC-SA

Criminal photography posing chair, c. 1880 © National Media Museum, Bradford / SSPL. Creative Commons BY-NC-SA

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.

Portraits of prisoners, c. 1890 © National Media Museum, Bradford / SSPL. Creative Commons BY-NC-SAThese criminals at Wormwood Scrubs Prison hold up their hands to show any identifying features, such as tattoos or missing fingers. A mirror placed on their right shoulder captures their profile.

Portraits of prisoners, c. 1890 © National Media Museum, Bradford / SSPL. Creative Commons BY-NC-SA
These criminals at Wormwood Scrubs Prison hold up their hands to show any identifying features, such as tattoos or missing fingers. Note the mirror placed on their right shoulder captures their profile.

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.

Page from album of prison record photography [John Whalley], 1 October 1905 © National Media Museum, Bradford / SSPL. Creative Commons BY-NC-SA

Page from album of prison record photography [John Whalley], 1 October 1905 © National Media Museum, Bradford / SSPL. Creative Commons BY-NC-SA

Potrait of a prisoner [William Copeland], 1874 © National Media Museum, Bradford / SSPL. Creative Commons BY-NC-SACopeland, aged 48, was arrested in Gateshead in September 1874 and sentenced to six months hard labour for theft.

Potrait of a prisoner [William Copeland], 1874 © National Media Museum, Bradford / SSPL. Creative Commons BY-NC-SA
Copeland, aged 48, was arrested in Gateshead in September 1874 and sentenced to six months hard labour for theft.

Page from album of prison record photography [Mary Ann Kennedy], c. 1900 © National Media Museum, Bradford / SSPL. Creative Commons BY-NC-SAKennedy was a partially blind prostitute with a string of convictions for theft, robbery with violence and receiving stolen goods.

Page from album of prison record photography [Mary Ann Kennedy], c. 1900 © National Media Museum, Bradford / SSPL. Creative Commons BY-NC-SA
Kennedy was a partially blind prostitute with a string of convictions for theft, robbery with violence and receiving stolen goods.

Al Capone sent to prison, 17 June 1931 © National Media Museum, Bradford / SSPL. Creative Commons BY-NC-SA

Al Capone sent to prison, 17 June 1931 © National Media Museum, Bradford / SSPL. Creative Commons BY-NC-SA

Page from album of prison record photography [James Miller], 7 May 1909 © National Media Museum, Bradford / SSPL. Creative Commons BY-NC-SA

Page from album of prison record photography [James Miller], 7 May 1909 © National Media Museum, Bradford / SSPL. Creative Commons BY-NC-SA

A detainee at a camp for German political prisoners is photographed, June 1945 © Planet News Ltd / Daily HeraldThis detainee, W Fischer, was held for the gross maltreatment of British Prisoners of War.

A detainee at a camp for German political prisoners is photographed, June 1945 © Planet News Ltd / Daily Herald
This detainee, W Fischer, was held for the gross maltreatment of British Prisoners of War.

Page from an album of prison record photographs [Alice Thompson], 28 April 1905 © National Media Museum, Bradford / SSPL. Creative Commons BY-NC-SA

Page from an album of prison record photographs [Alice Thompson], 28 April 1905 © National Media Museum, Bradford / SSPL. Creative Commons BY-NC-SA

Page from album of prison record photography [Herbert Huggins], 15 July 1904 © National Media Museum, Bradford / SSPL. Creative Commons BY-NC-SA

Page from album of prison record photography [Herbert Huggins], 15 July 1904 © National Media Museum, Bradford / SSPL. Creative Commons BY-NC-SA

Further reading and interesting links

Written by Colin Harding

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