It’s a beautiful, sunny morning outside a downtown Toronto basement office and filmmaker Dennis Mohr is enjoying a patch of early morning sunlight on a couch with books and photographs laid out in front of him full of pictures of sometimes very nasty people from the past and present. It’s a vast collection of research for his latest project Mugshot (debuting at Hot Docs this week before playing on TVO later this year), an examination of the history of the most infamous form of portraiture: the criminal booking photo.
Mohr, himself a photographer and aficionado of the art form, takes a look at the historical and cultural value of these photos from the past (which served for many as the only photographs that ever existed of sometimes marginalized civilians, as evidenced by some of the glass plates and fading photographs) and the present (a copy of a now defunct newspaper from the North Carolina that specialized in publishing nothing but mugshots). The focus here isn’t on salacious criminals or celebrities (although both get their due), but rather on what these snapshots of people at their worst can tell us about psychology, sociology, and history.
Mohr – whose next project will hopefully be an inside look at his time spent as a graphic artist for Gray Matter (a company known for some of the worst video games ever created, many of which were cash in titles like Wayne’s World and the unconscionably awful The Crow: City of Angels) – sat down to talk about the larger story behind mugshots, the issues that arise from their publication, and special plans to exhibit actual mugshots at this year’s festival.
Dork Shelf: In this film you have a nice blend of people who have various connections to the art of the mugshot: there are artists, people who profit from them, people who collect them. What was it about these small pictures and stories that made you realize there was a larger picture and story to be found historically about the art of the mugshot?
Dennis Mohr: That’s a good question. It’s not that I’m interested in mushots, but really that kind of photography and the mystery behind a mugshot. There were two things that really started this. The first was seeing the publication of The Slammer newspaper, this weekly publication of modern mugshots. The other was a book by my friend Mark Michaelson called Least Wanted, which was about the hundred year history of mugshots.
I realized through these that the publications of these photos were allowed in America and were a part of their history. I just knew there was something there between the past and the present. I don’t know what it was, but it was going to be interesting to see if there was that connection to history. I was really interested at first to see what people thought about mugshots, and then we thought about what they were telling us. It’s a huge part of our visual culture and history. Sometimes it’s funny, sometimes it’s sad. I just thought I would just investigate the cultural significance of these mugshots past and present and see if I can’t put something together.
DS: Something like The Slammer could be seen as this potential historical document in the future even though it’s something that could easily be ridiculed in some circles today. Do you think there’s an interesting balance between mugshots as being something that’s in poor taste today, but something that could possibly have more value in the future? Because in a lot of these older mugshots, these were often the only pictures some people ever had taken.
DM: Yeah! We kind of talk about that in the film, and my writer and editor really brought that out. I don’t even remember when that came in. Any of us who are interested in mugshots looked at a library in the future or some antique shop and we saw a 100 year old copy of The Slammer, we would probably pick it up. There’s a point there that given time there isn’t always so much focus on quality or the clarity of the art, but there is something there about social history. That’s what always fascinated us: that kind of modern psychology and sociology. That really falls into that category. Even when you laugh at the silliness of a mugshot or an all mugshot publication, there’s really a deeper meaning to that
The film isn’t supposed to be heavy, but I think it’s more of a mature treatment than something that would just end up being a fluff piece. I’m happy that it tackles a lot of this history and ideas, but we didn’t want to make it pathological. I think when you deal with this kind of branch of pop culture, 50 minutes is a good length to sustain that.
DS: Well, I like how you keep the talk of more salacious celebrity mugshots to only about five minutes of the film because that’s all the material you can really get out of that.
DM: Exactly! It’s a fleeting thing, and that’s a good point. We’re conscious of how all that stuff is already news, and that was how we wanted to approach it. We didn’t want to do all of these clichéd things of some poor guy getting his mugshot taken because we see that on the news all the time. We’re making a film here, so we considered everything, but what came out in the wash and stood out to us the most was to actually talk to real people who had a connection to mugshots, and these were people who could speak equally to the historical, cultural, and social issues behind them. We kept raising all these different issues and questions that we loved looking into.
DS: You don’t want to make a heavy film, but it’s sometimes hard to avoid when you are dealing with people being photographed who in many cases have fallen through the cracks of history. You talk about it in the film, and you realize that even in pictures of people who have passed on that people still remember what these photos mean and that there are families who still have to deal with the stigma around these pictures.
DM: What I thought was interesting was that from about a hundred years ago to today that out of all of those mugshot that are taken, maybe 6% of them are for actual high profile crimes that require major prosecution. So a lot of them today are drug crimes and misdemeanors. I’m not saying that everyone who shows up in something like The Slammer isn’t a nasty person because there have been some people accused of terrible, horrible crimes in there. And sometimes those most comedic photos that people like to poke fun at are of those potentially less dangerous people. These are the people who have really fallen through the cracks, but to the credit of the collectors and the people we talked to who showed up in that paper, I think they never would have talked to us if we just said we were making a fluff piece on pop culture iconography.
If you’re delving into a long form treatment of the subject, you kind of owe it to the people in these pictures to actually get a sense of who they are. To be fair, I did bounce between a kind of conservative angle and a kind of liberal angle during filming. It started bothering me a bit over time that I was only getting these liberal views when some of these people are really nasty repeat offenders, and I really didn’t get any conservative opinion on the subject. It wasn’t really an us vs. them kind of thing, but more just discussing the significance of these pictures rather than the reasons why people do what they do. We didn’t want to make a crime doc. We didn’t want to make just an art film, either. I still think it’s more about a type of photography driven by humanity and psychology than it’s about mugshots, in particular.
And I don’t have one opinion really one way or the other over whether they’re published or not. I kind of side on the International and Canadian feeling that they probably shouldn’t be. In fact, America is starting to change in that respect. Florida is in the process of banning the publication of mugshots. Aside from that, this is a part of America’s history where we now publish mugshots in America for people to look at and beware of criminals out there.
Actually, Toronto and Hamilton police were two of the earliest branches of the police department in the world to begin sharing mugshots across borders. I wish we could have explored that a bit more, but it didn’t entirely fit with the history of what we were looking at as a whole. We still mention it, though.
DS: One of the things that comes up in the film is the fact that so many people are enamoured with mugshots because they are looking for some sort of evidence of evil when it might not be there. Probably 90% of the people getting a mugshot taken were people who were just having a bad day.
DM: Right. These people aren’t necessarily guilty. This is just a booking photograph. There’s that whole thing where in small print at the bottom it reminds everyone that they’re guilty until proven innocent. Then there’s the whole other argument over whether or not these pictures should be published with their crimes they’re accused of. I don’t think they should, but regardless that information is there and in our face. It’s not going away any time soon. You can find almost any person’s mugshot from the states via a Google search.
It’s an extension of other films that I had done on photography and the subjects of photographs. You could certainly argue that some of these photos are great portraits. In great portrait photography, there’s always a sense of humanity, but a real portrait photographer, like a Leibovitz, you see more of the personality of the person taking the picture. The other interesting thing about a mugshot is how stripped bare they are. That’s what I think is so interesting about photography: it reveals both everything and nothing at the same time. He’s a really neat sliver of human nature and photography that’s under strained circumstances. You have to ask yourself when you see these images if they’re revealing everything or nothing at all. It’s not about the space of the picture or where it’s been, but what’s being said in it.
DS: It becomes a post-modern kind of found art, something that Andy Warhol certainly understood, but there’s no real authorial stamp on these photos.
DM: Yeah! Stephen Bulger and Steven Kasher really touch on that as photography experts in the film. This may be a form of portrait photography where the sitter has more control than the photographer. Even if the photographer is someone working on behalf of the police, they are restricted in what they can do. It’s where the term “mugging for the camera” comes from. It’s an interesting puzzle that contains all of these elements that no other photographs can. The riddle of photography is that it has always been this muddled kind of polyhedron where more questions are raised than are solved. There are some things that have been brought up that I never really thought of before.
I learned that we’re in such a visual culture nowadays that has become really fascinated with kind of Derrida’s ideas of the detritus of life. Not just of people, but society. Maybe a lot of these issues around drugs were akin to what used to be the stealing of a loaf of bread. Traditionally historians looked into old Roman garbage pits to look at the history of people. You could say that 100 or 1,000 years from now we can be similarly looking into that same kind of garbage pit, but you’ll actually have a picture of a face.
DS: There’s also a discussion to be had on whether or not something like The Slammer or any local newspaper should be paying the subjects of these photos for use of their image outside of a professional setting. In some ways places like The Slammer are making a profit off of the images of these people who have been arrested.
DM: Well, one of the things that isn’t in the film is that The Slammer actually didn’t make a profit and it’s not around anymore. (laughs) They had a five year plan to flip a profit and they never did. There are some other similar publications around the US that maybe turn a profit, though. The extortion angle that comes out of this wasn’t the paper’s intention, but someone else’s to show that these people who show up on the web can be extorted for money. Now, every state is cracking down on that sort of thing. Pretty much every internet service provider and Google have put traps on that, so hopefully it will end up going away, but it does raise all of these privacy and social issue to having your picture out there. The fact is that you were booked for something and it’s unfortunate. I’m glad we don’t do that here, but if you get into that slippery slope where you say anyone who has ever had a mugshot taken deserves compensation, then you can say that anyone who gets tagged in an unflattering Facebook photo is capable of the same thing. It would become a very messy world. It’s life and it’s out there, and maybe it’s a silly argument, but if you didn’t do anything wrong, then maybe you wouldn’t be in that picture.
But this kind of nasty public pillaring that you’re talking about is just an extension of human history throughout the ages. It’s something we have always done going back to the days of putting people in the stocks. But in this climate of Andy Warhol’s “15 minutes of fame,” this is what most people will get. The Slammer used to get calls from people in jail or who have been booked that complained they didn’t get on the front cover so they could brag to their friends! (laughs) That’s the reality culture we’re in, so while most people would be content to not ne in there at all, I think those who want to be compensated would rather be on the front cover. “Better to reign in hell than serve in heaven,” and all that. But just the fact that we’re having that discussion makes it such a fascinating part of modern culture.
I personally think that when it comes to serious art movements there was Picasso and then there was Andy Warhol, and when you get into the connection to Warhol, you realize this is in so many ways a direct connection to what he started and what we have become obsessed with. It’s found, archived, regular people. The celebrity angle to mugshots fits into that perfectly because it’s a great leveller in society. You can be one of the richest, mightiest financiers, and you can be lumped in with the lowliest and most unsuccessful of drug dealers. There’s a lot of schadenfreude that exists there, and it’s an interesting way to look at an odd type of photography.
DS: At this year’s festival, you guys are in the special position where for your screenings at the Isabel Bader Theatre, you get to show off some of the actual work and mugshots in the theatre after the screening. What’s it like being able to add that extra visual element to the premiere of the film?
DM: It’s great! This is actually the first time I’ve ever gotten into Hot Docs with a film, so it’s all very new to me. The first professional project that my company worked on got into TIFF, and that was cool, but this is something really, really special to me. It’s a hard festival to get into, and to be able to do something cool on top of that is amazing to me. I’m super excited. To be able to show something like this at the Isabel Bader theatre is amazing, and it’s great to see a festival so committed to art that we can do something special with the premiere of it for everyone to see before the film heads to public television. It’s such a great festival because you can do something like this.
So Stephen Bulger and his gallery are going to be putting together this side presentation, and Stephen has always been such an immense help on all of my projects. Again he’s coming through with flying colours. I actually haven’t even seen what he’s going to do yet, but he’s going to have 20 photographs of mugshots up throughout the screening. Then my friend Mark Michaelson who did Least Wanted and is an exceptional graphic designer will be coming up for the festival and you might just see some of his stuff being tagged and put up throughout the city when he gets here, so that will be a fun thing to keep an eye out for. He loves Toronto and to get out of New York for a bit. I don’t have it all planned out yet, but we’re just going to hang out and have a lot of fun at the Bader Theatre. But this is still just the beginning of this project’s life, and I’m really happy to share it with such great people.