Friday, June 15, 2012

Some people collect stamps. Mark Michaelson, a graphic designer in Manhattan, prefers mugshots. Not just any old mug will do -- Michaelson’s 10,000-odd faces bear scars, weak chins, crooked teeth and cloche hats, visual details his trained eye can’t resist.

“I see a lot of boring ones, and I’m not going for those,” Michaelson recently told The Huffington Post. “The ones you’re seeing are the best I’ve found. You get this feeling when you find them, like being an archaeologist, finding some relic that you’re able to identify as being special, and rescuing it, saving it.”

Michaelson started collecting in the mid-nineties, when eBay launched. Since 2005, he’s shared his scores, which come from markets on and offline (eBay is still his richest source), on his highly trafficked Flickr site, and in 2006, with a book and paired gallery show hosted by fellow mugshot collector Steven Kasher. Now Michaelson is analyzing his compulsion in “American Mugshot,” a documentary by a Toronto-based studio about how the mugshot -- a form of portraiture no one wants to pose for -- came to be art.

The idea of repurposing mugshots as art isn’t new. Andy Warhol, whose series for the 1964 World’s Fair involved 13 massive silkscreen mugshots of the FBI’s most wanted people at the time, is one of Michaelson’s “obvious” influences. But Michaelson isn’t ambitious in the way of Warhol, more possessed.

“I think about it all the time,” he said. “It’s an obsession. It's like a drug. I’m still just as excited by my most recent acquisition as I was by the very first.”

To gaze at the unlucky faces is also a uniquely American pastime. In all Michaelson’s time hunting -- in European flea markets and online -- he’s never come across a mugshot in circulation that originated outside the U.S., where they are considered public property.

Indeed, Michaelson’s accidental side career may not have flourished in a different time or place. Warhol’s experiment with mugshots at the World's Fair “didn’t go over very well,” Michaelson pointed out. “He was forced to take them down.”

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