The FBI are celebrating the capture of James “Whitey” Bulger, an Irish American Mobster from Boston who has been on the lam (in the James Ellroy spirit) for nearly 20 years. He was caught in Santa Monica.
The FBI have released a special downloadable “Captured” poster featuring three images of the 81 year old gangster who is supposed to have inspired the Jack Nicholson figure in Martin Scorsese’s The Departed.
The photos on the FBI poster are visual enhancements, speculations on what Bulger may have looked like. And what he would have looked like in any mug shot, or mocked up mug shot is as a criminal. Legal bodies in the US have ruled that juries seeing a mug shot immediately associate the photo and the person with criminality.
Though some date the mug-shot back to the wanted posters of the early 19th century, the mug shot as a feature of legal procedure was invented in 1870 by Alphonse Bertillon who worked as a clerk for the Police in Paris. Author Raynal Pellicer provides a comprehensive guide in his recent book Mug Shots: An Archive of the Famous, Infamous, and Most Wanted.
Though photography had been around since the late 1830s it was considered too expensive, too complicated and legally lawyers worried over introducing such an image in court.
Bertillon’s idea was that the photo should be standardized (angle, pose, lighting) and would appear alongside text that described physical features as means of identification. The mug-shot was in effect aiming at a “science of photography.” And while Bertillon’s system was eventually superseded by tools such as fingerprinting, Bertillon’s photographic genre survived.
With sophisticated digital and 3D imaging technology, evolving this is a genre of photography that will evolve fast. But there is something fascinating and disturbing in the mug shots’ essential neutrality and emotional severity.
Mug Shots: An Archive of the Famous, Infamous, and Most Wanted by Raymond Pellicer
Some examples of mug shot design
Slate Magazine feature
Some famous mug shots: Al Capone and Benito Mussolini. The Mussolini image is attributed to State Archives of the Canton of Berne where the future Italian Dictator was arrested for lack of papers in 1903.
US Department of Justice. Public domain
And for a counterpoint: law stock photos from Image Source.