Booked: The Last 150 Years Told Through Mug Shots: By Giacomo Papi, 205 pgs. By Aphid

Jan 16, 2007

As a person whose untidy behavior has several times landed me in front of a police department photographer, I’ve always been fascinated with mug shots. As a kid—back when my untidy behavior only earned me trips to the principal’s office and endless opportunities to languish in the detention room after school—I wished that I could collect mug shots like other kids collected baseball cards. My bedroom was garishly decorated with reproductions of vintage wanted posters of public enemies like Machine Gun Kelly, Jesse James, and Baby Face Nelson.

More recently, I’ve found myself being washed over with a malicious glee whenever a mug shot of some fallen celebrity would keep resurfacing in the media like a body that just keeps floating to the surface. And the more the celebrity looked like a drowned rat in the picture, the better. Glen Campbell was one of my favorites; once the very picture of the well-scrubbed, unblemished, country cherub with the sparkling smile and perfect coif, he looked in his mug shot like a dirty bomb had gone off in the center of his face. The flash of the police photographer’s camera had burned into the stubbled flesh of his scowling puss and brought out every sour crag and pock mark; his mouth looking like the over-sized crooked frown of a badly carved jack-o-lantern and his burning, beady eyes and messed up hair topping off the unforgettable look—the likeness of which I’m sure would make a Halloween mask to rival the famous Tor Johnson mask that’s been popular for decades. I can only hope that I looked half that unpresentable in any of my mug shots.

What I’m getting at here is this: you would really have to drop the ball in some spectacularly inept way to put out a mug shot book that I wasn’t at least moderately interested in. And Giacomo Papi has not dropped the ball. While I would hesitate to label Booked “ingenious”—as they do in the press release that came with the book—it is without question a voyeuristic treat. It’s a veritable rogue’s gallery packed with all manner of human vermin: thugs, killers, rampallions and mulligrubs. And, of course, rock stars—from the more genuine fuck-ups like Syd Barrett to the more “edgy” corporate products like Eminem and Marilyn Manson.

But having a few frauds in a book like this is probably unavoidable. At least Papi had the good judgment to spare us the mooning photos of the most fatuous of the rock’n’roll “bad boys”—namely Tommy Lee and Kid Rock—whose arrests are little more than PR moves and their mug shots nothing more than photo ops. Admittedly, they aren’t anywhere near as vile and outright weird as Michael Jackson (who is in the book), but at least the King of Pop isn’t faking anything—well, anything other than being a human being, that is.

Pouring over these photos I was struck, once again, by the similarities of a society collecting mug shots and a head-hunting tribe collecting shrunken heads. In a way, mug shots are modern day versions of shrunken heads; they are quite literally the “heads” of the enemy or bad guy shrunk down. And silenced. Our tidier modern version just doesn’t require messy brain removal and boiling flesh and sewing lips shut. But it is a sort of taxidermy nonetheless. Papi himself writes in the Afterword to the book: “the practice of police photography, in short, relieved the taxonomic and taxidermic impulse that lurked in the terrified heart of the nineteenth century.” And you don’t have to be a taxidermy buff like Eddie Gein (who, unfortunately, isn’t in the book) to see that.

I’ll even take it an odd step further and suggest that the collecting of mug shots is not entirely different than Cynthia Plaster Caster collecting plaster casts of the genitals of rock stars with whom she has had sex with. But that might steer us down some very dark Reichian alleyways that are best left unexplored at this point. Whatever the case, Booked is a fascinating collection of the photos and stories of just some of the people over the past 150 years who have found themselves caught in the fishnet of some authority body or another and pilloried for the public viewing. After reading the book, I was left wanting to see more. But maybe Global Warming will take care of that for me; with all the human heads overheating on our baking planet, I don’t think Papi will have to wait another 150 years to have enough material for a sequel. –Aphid Peewit (Seven Stories Press, 140 Watts Street, New York, NY, 10013)