Portraiture is only as good as its ability to capture personality, culture, and era. In great photographs, a complete world is presented, even if it’s shot in a white studio. I think the appeal is partially voyeuristic, but mostly it’s the empathic experience, on both ends of the spectrum, from joy to despair, with the subject. It’s the details of a subject’s face, belt or hair. The subject can be a mannequin or an actor, but if a photo elicits a self-reflexive reaction from me, I will like it. Expressive authenticity isn’t applicable to photography because it rarely looks like life perceived first-person, and the medium unavoidably derives its form from dramatic editing. Technical virtuosity is almost irrelevant.
Of Pier 24 Photography’s many galleries of the “About Face” exhibit, the mugshot room is my favorite. Their form is regulated to a close-cropped bust and I’m almost certain no photographer was emotionally invested in the shot, but they communicate more than Richard Avedon’s “The Family.” It is difficult to resist superficial generalizations—a rapist in the 1920s looked dapper, apparently—and speculation about mugs that don’t tell you what they did wrong; it’s also a superficial reading of the work, but it’s easy to go deeper. Getting caught by the police is an affirmation of vulnerability, and in a photograph of nothing but your face, all of the layers of self are on display. There is a high amount of posturing to appear masculine or okay with being arrested, but, quiet and isolated, it’s easy to see that attitude (and maybe their crime) as masculine performance. And it’s their performance that I feel so deeply—even though I’m a girl that has never been arrested—the pressure between whatever your real self is and who you want or are expected to be. Getting a mugshot taken is a conscious, or subconscious, moment of reflection on the performative self, and just how well that’s working out for you.