Friday, March 23, 2007

Mark Michaelson: America's Least Wanted

The mugshot as art. I can see it, can't you? The arresting eyes, the reflection in the mirror--certainly not done at the time for an artistic effect, but accomplishing one nonetheless. The photo is captivating, especially out of context, which is how graphic designer Mark Michaelson found and published the mugshot, and the others in his 2006 book, Least Wanted: A Century of American Mugshots.

Michaelson's book is the subject of a recent article in Smithsonian Magazine. From the article by Katy June-Friesen:
Why, exactly, were the pair of Fresno cross-dressers—clad like modest housewives—arrested on successive Tuesdays in 1963? What sort of upbringing, if that's the word, befell a Pennsylvania boy known as Mouse, who was arrested in the 1940s at ages 13, 14 and 18? We can only wonder. If the pictures are short on detail, they still add up to a vivid, impressionistic archive of American metamorphosis: bowler hats and beehives; Depression-era vagrancy and a 1970s narcotics bust; the arrival of Irish, German and Italian immigrants; the first wave of anti-Communism, in the 1930s, with the accused Communists' mugs mounted on pink cards; and the racism, as in the description of a Missouri man (a "close mouthed Negro who is probably committing burglaries"), who was arrested in 1938 for stealing "several pairs of stockings."
On the whole, the article makes a good case for these photographs as a subject of our interest and attention. Why, then, does June-Friesen describe Michaelson's publication as "a book slicker than an L.A. loan shark"?

The question nags at me. I may have to email her and ask.


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