Archive for » October, 2010 «

photographing a feminist anarchist

Emma Goldman police mug shot, 1893.

I recently came across this double police mug shot of Emma Goldman over on Slate, in “A Short History of Mug Shots” (I’d guess they cribbed it from this mug shot site). I’ve seen at least one other pair of mug shots of Goldman (below), but I found this one particularly interesting for its semiotic slippages.

As with all such mug shots, the purpose is to construct the subject as a criminal (and in this case also as an undesirable alien). But Goldman’s neat hair and middle-class clothes—especially that great hat—partially block this reading. In Barthian terms, the hat is the punctum of the photograph, the point to which the eye constantly returns even though there is no possible sense in which it was intended as the focal point of the photograph when it was taken. Perhaps that is why the photographer made her take it off for the second shot.

Emma Goldman, 1901 mug shots.

Moreover, the lack of an immediate visible distinction between the two photographs (the vertical line traditional in mug shot pairs) suggests a first reading of not a single person but two sisters, perhaps twins, one more relaxed than the other. One can almost imagine these vivid images gracing a carte de visite. Nor would they necessarily have seemed too ‘serious’ for such a use. The technology of photography at this time was still such that—due to long exposures—everyone looked serious in their photographs.

The other mug shots (at right) do a better job with their criminalizing semiosis:  the stripped-off outer clothing, the wild hair, and the more rigid full-face and profile positions. Here, too, the plain background more clearly reads as a police station wall—in the 1893 photos, the impression is rather of an ordinary background out of focus.

Emma Goldman 'at home'.

Both of these mug shot pairs contrast with by far the bulk of the Goldman photos I’ve ever seen, which are  studio portraits typical of the era like the one at left. There are many variations on these—sitting, standing; full-length, bust-length—but a good number feature the ‘thoughtful intellectual’ typology of hand under chin.

I prefer either of the mug shot pairs to these studio portraits—although just as posed and just as formal, they are at the same time much more candid. In those mug shots I can see the determination, self-possession, and anger that must have been major features of Goldman’s character. The studio portraits seem perverse by contrast, offering (especially in the aggregate) a view of a comfortable, stable, middle-class existence that takes almost no account of her actual life.