West News Wire: According to reports, Ulysses Grant was pulled over in 1872 for speeding. A policeman once flagged down the 18th American president’s horse-drawn carriage as it was speeding down 13th Street in Washington, DC. Grant tried in vain to argue his case, saying, “Hang it, officer, these animals of mine are thoroughbreds, and there is no holding them,” before driving to the station, according to the arresting officer’s account. At least there, the president was spared the embarrassment of a mugshot, which wouldn’t be commonly utilised for about a decade.
Despite four indictments in the past five months, the 45th president had long managed to evade it, too. But on August 24th Donald Trump finally had his picture taken by police when he surrenders to authorities in Fulton County, Georgia, charged in connection with his effort to overturn the 2020 presidential election results there. (He denies wrongdoing.) In it, he is seething, with angled eyebrows and a hard stare. The image will join the ranks of celebrity mugshots: famous faces in turns defiant, dejected, drunk, smirking or sulking.
The current mugshot, which consists of two photos one frontal and one profile along with identifying information, is a French creation. The technique was developed in the 1880s by anthropologist and police officer Alphonse Bertillon to catch serial offenders. A suspect was measured and photographed after being taken into custody. The method was extremely prescriptive; it included an 18-step breakdown of how to measure a person’s head length correctly. Police may use his measurements to locate his filed mugshot, if one exists, if they had reason to believe they were dealing with a repeat offender.
Because of all the information it conveyed to authorities, it was referred to as the portrait parlé, or speaking image. The mugshot has remained, although Bertillon’s measurements have been replaced by fingerprinting. Some, like great portraits, seem to get at the subject’s core. David Bowie, booked on marijuana charges in 1976, is sharply dressed and self-possessed. In 2022 the original Kodak (saved by the officer who photographed him in Rochester, New York) fetched nearly £5,000 ($5,950) at auction. Jane Fonda has an unkempt fringe and holds up a fist in protest. She was arrested for possessing drugs, which turned out to be vitamins. Frank Sinatra is boyish and serene, booked for “seduction”, or luring “a single female of good repute” to bed.
Others document an inevitable moment in a longer struggle. The late John Lewis, a congressman and civil-rights activist, repeatedly tweeted his mugshot to mark the anniversary of his release after being arrested in 1961, for using a toilet reserved for white people. The famous mugshot of Rosa Parks is indelibly associated with her act of defiance on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama, in 1955 but was actually taken after a later arrest for protesting during the bus boycott that followed.
Vladimir Lenin and Joseph Stalin were both arrested and exiled (several times, in Stalin’s case) to Siberia for revolutionary activities; they look young and determined in their surviving mugshots. Fidel Castro’s hangs in the former Cuban prison where he served part of a 15-year sentence for organizing an attack on a barracks. Still others are simply bleak: Hugh Grant is hunched and humbled after soliciting a sex worker in 1995; Tiger Woods is zombie-like after being arrested for driving under the influence in 2017.
What will be the legacy Mr. Trump’s picture? He would certainly like to present himself as righteous and persecuted, waging a noble political fight. Outside the courthouse he told reporters: “What has taken place here is a travesty of justice.” His indictments have so far galvanized, rather than alienated, his supporters. His campaign team was already selling merchandise branded with a photoshopped mugshot. But the fabricated image had no power: the whole point of the mugshot is authenticity. The purpose, wrote a fan of Bertillon’s, is “to give each human being an identity, an individuality, certain, durable, invariable, always recognizable”. That, at least, Mr. Trump can already claim to have achieved.