And it’s not more than just the lighting that makes these portraits fascinating. Part of it is the informality of the images- with group shots and some portraits looking like they’ve been taken on the patio or in the backyard. Part of it is the expressions of the subjects. They don’t appear at all shy or shameful. You get the sense that the novelty of having their portrait taken has taken the edge off the circumstance they’ve found themselves in.
There’s a dignity to these people that’s missing from modern mugshots. Partly it’s the shirts and ties that lend a certain respectability to people that may well have lead some pretty sordid lives. It could also be what we know about the conditions and the criminal code of the early 20th century that allows us to look at these people with a little more sympathy than we would otherwise. Somehow it’s easier to imagine that these people were victims of circumstance and desperate times.
Part of it is just the passage of time. Distance adds charm and it’s hard to feel any fear or disdain for these dapper looking gents knowing they’re all probably 30 or 40 years in the grave. But maybe that’s what we need to do to have more empathy for the criminals of today. Imagine them from a historical perspective 90 years from now when singlet tops, baseball caps and sleeve tatts will look every bit as anachronistic as bow ties and fedoras. Imagine the way people will think about the inequality and the social problems of our society today. After all that, we’ll still have to imagine they’ve been given the opportunity, like these men and women, to present themselves as best they can for the public record. If we could put ourselves in that position we’d be well on our way to judging them less harshly.
There’s a great selection on www.laboiteverte.fr and much of the the archive is accessible on the Historic Houses Trust website.
There’s also a hardcover book with a collection of these mugshots called ‘City of Shadows‘ which has been compiled by australian historian Peter Doyle. It’s worth checking out just to see the images blown up and restored to their full resolution.