Mark Michaelson: Crime Becomes Collectible, Mugshots for Sale

Murder and mayhem have long fascinated photographers and film aficionados, and are also inextricably linked with collectors of vernacular photography. But, how did the mugshot become a fine-art collectible? For New York-based collector and curator Mark Michaelson the answer is personal. In an interview with a New York Daily News reporter he noted, “I’m looking for photos that move me for whatever reason. From things that are terribly funny to things that are terribly tragic.”  

Spread from a Sacramento mugshot album related to the International Workers of the World, 1918-19. Estimate $4,000 to $6,000. At auction October 17 2013.

Over the past 20 years, Michaelson has assembled an amazing archive of more than 10,000 mugshots and crime photographs. Trained as a graphic designer, he views these images with a sensibility that draws on both aesthetic and historical influences. The Michaelson lots in Swann’s October 17, 2013 Photographs & Photobooks auction feature images of American men and women whose crimes include running numbers to larceny to homicide to “incendiary” labor organizers. The portraits depict a range of socioeconomic types spanning the 1900s-1920s, from the bruised and handsome con man to the dapper, but scary hardened criminal. Interestingly, women figure prominently, as do a host of ethnic figures. While some face the camera with aplomb and guile, the posture of those arrested for petty crimes conveys shame and fear.

Images of criminals are undoubtedly titillating, but the backstories also reflect documentary truths that will give the viewer pause. For example, Michaelson collected with an awareness of the gray line between purported criminal activity and social activism. The albums include pictures of “wobblies,” members of the International Workers of the World – union organizers – who were confronted and battered by local thugs hired by anti-union businessmen in the northwest. Interestingly, the labor protestors were the ones arrested! 

Two pages from a mugshot album containing nearly 1500 entries from across the United States, 1905-20.Estimate $10,000 to $20,000. At auction October 17 2013.

Michaelson is the subject of the forthcoming documentary film, “American Mugshot,” which will be released  this fall. He co-authored the now out-of-print book, Least Wanted: A Century of American Mugshots (Stedl, 2009), in conjunction with an exhibition of select pictures from his collection at the Steven Kasher Gallery. Mark’s epic archive, which is accessible on his Flickr stream, has connected him with artists and aficionados around the globe.

For more information, check out the article about Mark, written by Christine Roberts, which appeared in The New York Daily News in June 2012: