Before the Avatar, the Mugshot
In this digital age, it is hard to escape the semiotics of the avatar; even at work we get to chose one for the staff directory or our internal social network. A recent acquisition, Defenders and Offenders (New York, 1888) offers a chance to peek at earlier versions of this artform: the mugshot. In this title, the Defenders – the lawmen of Brooklyn and New York – are given a page of biography and a large, elegant side portrait. The Offenders are presented face on (rarely entirely flattering), and squeezed into a grid of four. All are rendered in very compelling and understated chromolithography. We leave you, the reader, to decide which is most appropriate for us. .
Historians, particularly the historian of photography and science, have long paid attention to the cultural meanings of the mugshot. There is also surely something to be made of the rather mean text that accompanies each portrait: 'Mrs Hattie Connelly is an adventuress and swindler, and also known by the names of Carroll, Styles, Bruce and canal boat Hattie. Her latest adventure was in June, 1888, when she swindled an old man of 68 years of age, in Jersey City, out of over $2,000. Mrs. Connelly is fair, fat, and 40, and the way the old man was taken in by this clever confidence woman is something remarkable'. (There is an account of her case in The New York Times, 28 April 1888.) Law & Order: 1888, we await you.