A few years ago I was very enamored, as were many others, with the release of the historic Australian mug shot portraits chronicled in Peter Doyle's City of Shadows. How the images found the light of day is a great story and reminds me a bit of the Vivian Maier photos stashed in lockers in Chicago. (Read more about her story here). The Australian images were salvaged from a flood after having been stored away for almost 100 years. In reality, it was the flood that saved them and brought them to the attention of the police archivist and led to their eventual restoration. Luckily you can find plenty about the story and links to the images themselves all over the Intergalactic Web, because the book has become a high priced collector's item.
What really caught my imagination after viewing these photos was the question of how we define a portrait in photography since mug shots--a term from the English slang for face--are typically not included. While you can create as many categories for different types of portraits as there are people, they really break down into three large categories for me:
1. Famous People/Fashion
2. Non-Famous People
And yes, those categories leak like a sinking ship...just strap in for a little ride, okay?
The popular idea of a portrait can be summed up by envisioning a famous person sitting comfortably against a single color backdrop with excellent and simple lighting, sometimes even natural light. Many will also think of fashion or creative portraits in this category, or maybe even more cutting edge flavor of the month portraits like those of Terry Richardson. Regardless, the actual subject is well known and many times that is what makes the photograph interesting.
When the same excellent technique is applied to non-famous people, we get a myriad of amazing portraits that I would argue are judged more for their technique and artistic quality than those in the first category. That is not to say you are not drawn in by portraits of famous people--there is some amazing work there, but if you are not shooting Charlize Theron and you still make a beautiful portrait that causes people to have an emotional reaction, then bully for you. If you are capturing Golden Gloves fighters and not Mohammed Ali and your portrait still captivates, then we have some exciting work. The photos in this category better tell a story and be well executed.
This is my slapdash catchall category because a cell phone picture of a person is a portrait and so are all those people pictures from Christmas morning. Candid or street photography of people are portraits and all those "selfies" count too. And yes, school portraits and everything from Olin Mills--like those wonderful family photos we love to hide--those are all portraits.
By definition, anytime a camera captures a representation of a person, it is a portrait. But there is capturing a person, and then there is capturing a personality or emotion.
Where Do Mug Shots Fit?
ell executed early mug shots fall into the second category. Mug shots first appeared in Bedford Prison in England over 150 years ago when written descriptions of prisoners proved to be full of errors and unusable. I have included some examples of these first portraits in a gallery at the end of this article. Even these original portraits carry a weight not seen in modern mug shot portraits or modern portraits in any category. This is due to the photographer's point of view, the abnormal setting, and the more formal place of portraits in society at the time. The viewer also feels like they are seeing something they are not supposed to see, and this adds an emotional element. But an interesting portrait holds up over the ages and across cultures, and these early portraits of people on the edges of their society definitely stand the test of time.
The Australian mug shot portraits are wonderfully curated by Peter Doyle to offer us choice examples of personalities that fill our minds with stories and create empathy for the subjects themselves. Again, these are not famous people, but due to the execution, framing, and use of light, we are invited to come closer to these individuals and learn more. They are not voluntary subjects and the circumstances are not comfortable (one subject even refuses to open his eyes), but somehow these portraits exceed expectations and are far more interesting than the endless roll of famous people portraits we now see on a daily basis. I am tired of portraits of famous people.
Really emotional and authentic portrait photographs are inspiring to everyone. The Australian images proved to be so intoxicating that Ralph Lauren used them as the touchstone for their 2011 Lookbook. The Ralph Lauren project was incredibly successful in creating hype for one of their sub-brands and they have since carried on the theme of utilizing vintage portrait inspiration for their current campaigns. (See the current Double RL Campaign.) Their 2011 project is so well done that it allows us to compare these new images with the originals to show the difference between a fashion portrait and a portrait of a non-famous person. To me, one exudes cool confidence and the other is posing.
Not to be outdone, Levi's Vintage Clothing uses historic images of California miners in group portraits as inspiration for their current marketing campaigns. They are trying to capture the ruggedness and authenticity of the original images with modern apparel and marketing sensibilities.
Do You Care?
In the end, portraits should tell a story and bring the viewer closer to the subject. That story might be incredibly personal and only meant for your family--it might be a story of posterity. In some cases, the story is about icons and entertainers and what draws us to their personalities. And in others it is about clothes and flash-bang photography that assaults our sensibilities for better or for worse. It might be a story that you only share with yourself, which at times seems to be the main purpose of cellphones. Regardless, a meaningful portrait can come from any category, and the great ones will inspire our creativity, increase our connections and empathy to the human condition, and create a desire to know more...about everything.
Gallery: Sydney Australia Portraits
Gallery: The Original Mug Shots 1859-1876
Gallery: Ralph Lauren Fashion Portraits