Tag Archives: privacy

Kate Sutherland

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.

Kate Sutherland

Roundup of News & Reviews, September 5-11, 2011

Below is a selection of the news stories and book reviews related to law and the arts that caught my attention last week.

A U.S. district court has allowed a lawsuit brought against Hungary and its museums by the heirs of art collector Baron Mor Lipot Herzog to proceed. Herzog’s heirs brought the suit after unsuccessfully petitioning the Hungarian government for the return of art, collectively valued at more than $100 million, “most of which has been hanging in Hungarian museums, where it was left for safekeeping during World War II or placed after being stolen by the Nazis and later returned to Hungary” (NYT). Hungary argued that it was entitled to immunity under the United States Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act, but the court was not convinced. The lawsuit seeks the “the return of more than 40 artworks including paintings, sculptures and other works by El Greco, Lucas Cranach the Elder, Zubarán, van Dyck, Velázquez and Monet,” and “an accounting of all art from the Herzog family in its possession” (NYT). (Sources: New York Times, Clancco, Reuters, Hungary on Trial)

A California court has denied Madonna’s bid to have a trademark case against her over her Material Girl clothing line thrown out. Retailer LA Triumph claims it has been using the name for a clothing line since 1997 and that it owns the trademark. Madonna argues that her use dates back farther to her 1985 hit song. But the court concluded that Madonna’s argument was an insufficient basis for the summary judgment that she sought: “This Court and other courts have recognized that the singing of a song does not create a trademark.” Thus the case will continue on to trial. (Sources: Hollywood Reporter, BBC)

A Paris court has found that television newsreader Patrick Poivre d’Arvor breached the privacy of a former lover through his undisguised portrait of her in a 2009 novel Fragments of a Lost Woman. In addition to many details drawn from her life, the book included virtual word-for-word copies of eleven letters that she had written to him. Poivre d’Arvor argued that the book was a work of fiction based on his “numerous female conquests,” but the court was not persuaded, concluding: “The literary procedures used do not allow the reader to differentiate the characters from reality, such that the work cannot be qualified as fictional.” The court imposed a fine and a ban on reprinting of the novel. (Source: Telegraph)

Matthew Jones, author of the screenplay for Boot Tracks and the novel upon which it was based, is suing the director and producers of the film. He claims that they made unauthorized changes to the script which constitute a breach of an option agreement. His complaint reads in part: “Defendant Jacobson and Rattner promised that the screenplay would not be changed, that they understood the unique artistic integrity of the screenplay and that if changes did have to be made in order to secure financing that plaintiff would be the only one allowed to make said changes, which would be consistent with the authenticity of the novel.” In addition to breach of contract, Jones alleges copyright infringement and fraud. He is seeking damages and an injunction to prevent release of the film. (Source: Courthouse News, Hat tip: @Copycense)

Prompted by the impending release of an eagerly anticipated new film adaptation of John Le Carre’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy with Gary Oldman playing the role of George Smiley, Robert McCrum has compiled a list of the best British spy novels. Click here to see his list and assess his choices. Has he left out any must-reads?

In an interview with the Guardian, A.D. Miller discusses his Booker-shortlisted novel Snowdrops which features as its narrator “a lonely, drifting, 30something expat lawyer, living in Moscow during the few-questions-asked oil boom.” Definitely one that I’m keen to read.

German lawyer and author Ferdinand von Schirach has garnered high praise for short stories based on his criminal defense work. But in his latest work of fiction, he has turned to the past, tackling his fraught family history. The soon to be published novel, Der Fall Collini, includes a character based on his grandfather who was leader of the Hitler Youth and ultimately convicted of crimes against humanity at the Nuremberg trials. The Guardian quotes from an interview that von Schirach did with Focus magazine: “If you grow up with a name like mine, by the time you are 15 or 16 at the latest, you have to ask yourself some basic questions and come up with some very basic answers that you can live with. It’s your responsibility.” His grappling with these questions through the medium of fiction will doubtless make for though-provoking reading. I don’t know when an English translation is due to be published, but I will certainly be watching for it.

Reviewer Joanna Hines is pleased to have discovered in Death in August, the first installment in a mystery series by Marco Vichi set in 1960s Florence, a new detective (Inspector Bordelli) “whose company will be an enduring pleasure.” She pronounces the book: “A real find for anyone who likes their crime novels atmospheric, discursive, humorous and thought-provoking.” Sounds very promising. (The Guardian)