The Mugshot Photo Booth is a machine that takes a participant's image and by blending their image with an actual criminal mugshot gives them deviant traits.
I have a background in photography and with that I came to the Interactive Telecommunications Program (ITP) at New York University with the question, "What is photography in the digital environment?" Over the course of two years, the question developed into "How does photo change with technology?" The question is no longer limited to the digital environment such as a digital negative but broadens to encompass all technological advances. Photography has always been an art bound by technology. It is also a tool people use in their lives. It is form of communication. It is so many things and its purpose changes based on the current image making equipment. Street photography is a style that developed out of the speed and size of a 35mm camera. Stylistic changes are not only influenced by the photographer but by the engineers and product designers. The Mugshot Photo Booth comes out of a re-examination photography as a whole, from the photographer to the equipment they use, to the work produced and the relationship of all these components.
There are three direct influences for this project: portrait, photography as a social tool and crime.
Portraits have always fascinated me. Their purpose is do describe the sitter in a certain fashion. I say a certain fashion because I was and still am not convinced by portraits. I don't believe the stories they tell about the sitter. Just by looking at the images, I don't know who the image describes. Is it the sitter, is the photographer, it could be an imaginary being channeled through a person. The fact that I don't know the person that an images describes, this contradiction fascinates me and compels me to look at more portraits.
Richard Avedon Portrait show at the MET is a good illustration of the questions I have about portraiture. I went to the show with someone whose experience with Avedon was limited to only the images he saw before him and his experience of photography was influenced by theory, art history or formal training. Halfway through the show, he walked out. I asked him why and he said that all the images looked alike and he was bored. I got angry and tried to point out why they weren't alike, but as I finished walking through the show, I realized he was right. If I had never studied photo history or art, all these images would be the same and ambiguous. Who are they pictures of anyway? Avedon changed everyone into the same person and that person was Avedon. Artist, drifters, writers, etc, wildly diverse individuals looked alike in Avedon's images. The exhibition was a series of portraits of the artist. This concept is not as apparent as painted portraits where the artist's hand is undeniable, photography's equipment hides the hand or the artist, more than a painting but not the artist's eye. A change in a tool effect the interpretation of the work produced.
I also looked at photography as a social tool. It started in Clay Shirky's Social Weather class were I examined the way social groups online used photography in a community setting (click here to read paper analysis of photo communities). Two groups that I studied used portrait to communicate with each other: OutCastPix and IluvMyBoyfriend on livejournal.com. Both groups posted portraits on their community page and other community members responded with praise and reassurance. Both groups consisted of member who ranged in ages between 14 and 23, a time in one's life when people figure out who they are. They responded to each other's portraits because the had relationships with each other. A stranger would not be compelled to respond because there is not personal tie to the image, and for the most part, even a pretty picture will not convince people to post a response. The personal tie is crucial. The perfect example of this notion are the photographs of babies, to the parent their child is the cutest thing on earth, to a stranger, the baby is just another baby.
With the growth of digital photography, companies have designed cameras and software to ease the use picture making and picture sharing. After you initial monetary investment in the camera and a computer, the cost of use disappears. With tradition snapshot cameras, you pay for film, you pay for development and you have to wait for your images to be processed. By the time that is done, you have less pictures than you would if you had used a digital camera and the urge to share them is decreased because of the money and time you invested in getting the pictures printed. Digital cameras and computers make that aspect cheap. So you take a picture, show your friends on the LCD of what it looks like and plug it into your computer to email them a copy as soon as you get home. The end result of this digital evolution on a common consumer level means more pictures and more exposure for these pictures.
Polaroid cameras and film are another good example of a tool that facilitates social behavior. You take a picture and 3 minutes later you have the image. Before that moment passes, it is turned into a document. When I photographed some farmers in Romania selling goods they asked for a copy of my pictures. Knowing that it would be a long time before I could give them an image, I pulled out my Polaroid camera instead and made Polaroids of them, that I gave them. Each picture I took attracted more people as the gathered to watch an image develop from nothing. By the time I left the market, I had received so much fresh food for my gifts that my bag could not hold any of the camera equipment that it was meant for. Polaroid Sticky film for the I-zone camera is another great social invention. At a New Years' Eve party, guests had their image snapped and applied to drinking glasses that way you could always find your cup, or know who's cup you are drinking from. People at the party talked about the pictures, they went looking for cup's owner. The photographic object facilitated social behavior from party goers. Images in each case crossed the boundary of being just records of events to shaping the event, because of their instant nature.
The last influence for the Mugshot Photo Booth is a series of rapes that occurred where I live prior coming to ITP. For the most part I fit the description of the women being attacked: young and arriving home after Midnight. My apartment was in the middle of the attacks. But yet, with some guilt, I didn't feel afraid because I didn't fit the description precisely, I'm not Asian. A few months later, one Saturday morning, cop cars gathered near my apartment building. They found the rapist and he lived in the building next door. How arbitrary this all felt. Something I had no control over kept me safe, provided an invisible barrier. I was in the middle of it all but I could have been a million miles away. I was shielded by my appearance, by my mask.
From that experience, I thought about crime and mugshots. Mugshots are portraits that say something distinct about the person: they are a criminal. They become bound to that association whether or not they are in fact guilty of that crime. It is a record that exists long after the criminal is gone. The mugshots I am using are old and have limited information about the person in the image so that image is about representing a crime via a person's face. Modern mugshots carry the possibility that someone associated with the crime will use my booth and celebrity mugshots will just detract from the main goal because of their identity will get in the way of the crime.
So why a photo booth? I choose a photo booth because I wanted to make an installation that can encompass some of the ideas on photography. The photo booth is a social image maker. It is a place where people go to have their picture taken. Often in malls, stores, restaurants and train stations. It is event as much as it is a picture taking tool. It is a familiar object that is for the most part not threatening to the public. Often groups take their picture for amusement and less for necessity. Beyond the social context of a photo booth, I chose it because it acts as a surrogate artist. It is machine that acts like the photographer when one isn't present. Older photo booths give the user very limited feedback. The participant doesn't know what their image will look like until the prints come out. We have gotten so used to immediate feed back that I thought it interesting if I could purposely hold back information about what is going on until the machine was finished making the print, when it is too late to change it. Why must we use all the technological tools available to us, the concept of not using every advancement and limiting the technology appealed to me. There is a deceptive quality to it which is analogous to the way I think photographs are, they are controlled by someone, not completely truthful.
Making something that took the participant portrait was important because I wanted as many people as possible have an emotional reaction to the images that they saw. From my studies, the strongest reaction anyone would have was to one's own portrait. With a little of the unexpected, for example a manipulation of the image, their reaction was heightened. I wanted the strongest emotional reaction to the photographs and self-portraits seem do the trick universally. Gallery goers were no longer passive observers but participants in the work. I wanted a confrontation that dealt with the images and to exaggerate the difference between real life and an image. I wanted the digital medium to make an engaging image not just one adorned by motion, sound or text. So easily we can be so seduced by the computer's ability to add garnish that I wanted restrain myself and really focus what I can do with a still image with the technology available to me so that the images themselves are strong.
Anyone who likes to have his or her picture taken.
dirty exercise, to see how fast and how many people would this work for.
Sample of the criminals used from Death Scenes
Using a universal alpha mask and testing it in a booth with Director and a video camera:
Programming platforms: Director and BX-24 basic
After observation at the ITP Physical Computing show, where most of the people who saw it were the technologically super savvy, I'm not sure if the booth isn't just a fun tool that turns the participant into a criminal. I'm not sure a general public can look beyond the manipulation to see what the image means. Maybe that reaction comes when the participant goes home, and looks at the images a second or third time. But what need to happen is to have users who I don't know test the booth, then I will get a broader sense of what this booth accomplishes.
Bibliography and Sources