Braily Muse was fifty-two years old when, in the early hours of Monday, the twenty-first of May, 1945, he was arrested for being drunk and disorderly. There is no record of his life before or after the event.
Braily’s picture is one of the hundred or so New Castle mug shots for which I haven’t been able to find a story, but I love it anyway—his torn cardigan; his ratty dreadlocks; the cataract in his left eye; the too-drunk-to-care grin. It’s hard to believe this was his only entanglement with the police, but, if there were more, they weren’t reported.
There are thousands of old American mug shots in circulation. (Why didn’t American law enforcement authorities send them to city or state archives, as happened everywhere else in the world? I have no idea.) Although reading Small Town Noir might lead you to think otherwise, it’s impossible to find out much about the lives of the people in most of them.
Probably the foremost collector of mug shots in the world is Mark Michaelson, who published a book called Least Wanted, which features hundreds of the best pictures from his collection. It’s an endlessly fascinating book, although hardly any facts are known about any of the people in the photographs. Such faces! After I bought it, I spent hours looking through it and wondering about the lives of the ordinary men and women he’d saved from total oblivion. That—and the excellent research work in Arne Svenson’s Prisoners, which reprints the newspaper stories associated with a collection of beautiful glass-plate mug shots from one small Californian town—was what sent me down the road that led to Small Town Noir.
Now, Mark and a documentary filmmaker named Dennis Mohr are making a film called American Mugshot, which explores the genre of mug shot photography and its impact on contemporary culture. I’d be excited about it anyway—because of the subject, obviously, but also because Dennis’s previous film, Disfarmer: A Portrait of America, was just great—but what’s particularly exciting (for me) is that they want a portion of the film to deal with Small Town Noir and my attempts to present an odd sort of social history of a particular place through the mug shots of its citizens, the idea being that they’ll film an interview with me on the streets of New Castle itself.
(There’s an interview with Mark Michaelson here, in which he talks about his obsession with mug shots and the documentary project.)
Of course, the film will happen only if they get funding. Which is why I’m writing this.
They’ve set up a Kickstarter campaign to raise cash to make the film. It will be active until the end of July, so head on over to check it out, and, more importantly, bring it to the attention of your weird, obscenely rich uncle who’s into vintage photography and documentary films and is desperate to do something with his masses of excess money. He’ll love it.
I love the idea of a doco about mug shots. Not sure if you’ve seen these, but the NSW Justice and Police Museum has some beautifully restored mug shots. Here’s a post I did on my about their images of women who did time in the NSW State Reformatory for Women set up in Sydney’s Long Bay jail, from the period 1915-30.
The museum also put out a great book on pictures of Sydney criminals from the same era that you may be interested in checking out.
Keep up the good work.
Hi Andrew – thanks for the links. I’ve got that book! Those Sydney portraits are some of the best photographs I’ve ever seen — not just the best criminal pictures, or the best vernacular shots, but the best photographs.