Arresting Images: Mug shots from the OPP Museum

I visited the Helen McClung Gallery at the Ontario Archives this week to see Arresting Images: Mug shots from the OPP Museum. The title is, of course, a clever play on words, but “arresting” is also exactly the right descriptor. These are photographs from which one cannot look away.

The exhibition is comprised of 100 mug shots that span from 1886-1908 from the collection of the OPP (Ontario Provincial Police) Museum. The images on display are reproductions so that front (the photographs) and back (hand-written details about the person pictured and the crimes for which they were arrested) can be shown side-by-side. The details are extremely sketchy in some instances and extensive in others, including name, aliases, occupation, charge, age, height, weight, and sometimes even full Bertillon measurements such as the lengths of each ear.

Except in the case of the few that include tell-tale dual images of face-on and profile views (such as that of Lillie Williams above), absent those hand-written details, I couldn’t have guessed the purpose of the photographs without being told. At first glance, many appear to be old family portraits featuring men and women dressed in their Sunday best. Indeed, some of them are just that, photographs that cooperative family members gave to police. Others, though taken at the direction of police officers, were taken by commercial photographers in their studios when the police detachments in question had no photographic equipment of their own. Hence the fancy backdrops, formal poses, and artistic skill that mark them as studio portraits first and mug shots second (the latter sometimes a delayed realization when the viewer belatedly notes that the sitter is handcuffed to the chair in which he poses, as was the case for William Rae, in the image to the left of this paragraph).

But a number of those that were clearly taken by official police photographers are also very compelling portraits that can, in my view, hold their own alongside the work of the best portrait photographers. Their revelatory quality brought to mind the work of some of my favourite portrait photographers, for example, Mike Disfarmer and Richard Avedon.

But of course, these photographs have to be considered in context, not simply evaluated for their artistry, and here an element of discomfort creeps in, at least for this viewer. These were not willing sitters, photographed by consent. They had no choice but to comply, and to thereby have what were doubtless for many of them moments of shame and desperation recorded for posterity. The question of privacy certainly occurred to me as I peered into the window on those moments that the photographs provide. I’m not suggesting any violation of privacy laws. The OPP Museum website indicates that Canadian privacy laws were carefully observed in the compilation of the exhibition—this is why all of the images included are more than 100 years old. Nevertheless, here they are, 100 people, captured for all time at one of their worst moments, forever associated with crimes of which, in some instances, they were only suspected, never even charged, let alone convicted. And here I am, gawking at them.

Yet, as I said above, I couldn’t look away. Each picture hinted at a story and I wanted to know that story. Indeed, particularly where details were sketchy, the fiction writer in me wanted to make a story up, while the legal scholar in me wanted to hasten to the archives to learn more (although I gather that the OPP Museum archivists, who are much better qualified for the task, have already discovered all the information available in connection with each photograph). And beyond the individual human stories, there is much to be learned from this exhibition about the history of photography and of policing. Fascinating all round, and well worth a visit.

Arresting Images is only on display in Toronto until the end of this week. But it’s a travelling exhibition which is due to visit other Ontario cities, including Sault Ste. Marie and Thunder Bay, in the new year. For more details, and to see more of the images for yourself, click here. And to buy a copy of the exhibition catalogue, click here.

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