I saw some of these pictures on a recent blog post by Chase Jarvis and thought I would share as he raises an interesting question.
In his post, Jarvis says:
«These images clearly have cultural value. Are these portraits? Where does the mugshot fit along this spectrum?»
So are these photos portraits? Basically, if you go to Wikipedia, they say:
A portrait is a painting, photograph, sculpture, or other artistic representation of a person, in which the face and its expression is predominant. The intent is to display the likeness, personality, and even the mood of the person. For this reason, in photography a portrait is generally not a snapshot, but a composed image of a person in a still position. A portrait often shows a person looking directly at the painter or photographer, in order to most successfully engage the subject with the viewer.
So, back to our mugshots. The face and its expressions are predominant, they display the mood of the person and they give us, the viewer, a glimpse of the life of said person at a given moment (why is this person there? What has he/she done to have a mugshot taken?). Therefore, I would say that from the strict formal definition, yes, these photos are portraits.
But then I would focus on the idea of an artistic representation: what makes the difference between a snapshot and a portrait? In my opinion, it would be the photographer's intent to display characteristics of a person in a composed and artistic manner. From this criteria, I would not consider a picture taken by a police officer, merely documenting a fact without other intent, to be a portrait. Not even photojournalism because the photographer/policeman has no intent to say/show something to the viewer. Therefore, I would say mugshots are snapshots. Sometimes they are celebrity snapshots, often intringing and engaging for the viewer, other times a bit voyeuristic, but they remain snapshots nevertheless.
One more question arises. What happens when these pictures are shown to the public? In the case of publication, I would tend to think we could consider these mugshots as photojournalism. Could we compare them to Weegee the Famous' great photographies of the 1930's NYC streets with its share of crime? From the result, they present news material for publication (short definition of photojournalism) but the aim of these mugshots was not publication (policemen just documenting a fact for internal procedure). So what should prevail: the result or the intention?
Well, enough discussing... I'm not at the French Baccalaureat! Today is the Philosophy exam for French kids!
All I can say for sure is that if you want to be a rock star, you better be arrested and have your portrait taken by a kind policeman to follow the footsteps of Axel Rose, Mick Jagger, Prince, Jimmy Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, Ozzie Osbourne among others.