This Week In Photography Books – Dead Men Don’t Look Like Me

by Jonathan Blaustein

Good boys make good husbands, but bad boys have all the fun. So they say. Ever the dutiful first son, I fought the truth of the adage for years. While young, I doted, wrote poems, gave flowers, held doors, basked in my own chivalry. And what did it get me? Not very much.

As it stands, I am a good husband. I cook for my family, and sometimes even clean up. But I’d never have made it to husbandhood had I not embraced my dark side. It’s what makes us whole.

Argue if you must, but there are very few sociopaths out there, and fewer psychopaths still. Most of us possess the milk of love and murder in our veins, and almost everyone does the best they can. Horrible deeds, more often than not, come with easy justifications. Most miserable acts are not seen that way by those who commit them. There are reasons that cloak the wave of unstoppable emotions.

We have, and will always be fascinated by those who dance too close to the darkness. Literature, Film, Photography, and many other media have long mined the hills of sorrow, and rarely do they celebrate remorse. People just love to watch other people get killed. (Pretend, now. Not so, back in the day.)

Bad guys are like fun house mirrors. When we gaze into their eyes, we fool ourselves into believing they contain all the horrors of the world, sucking it out of us so we may remain clean as the carpets in the White House. (I’ve never visited, but even with our huge government debt, you know they’re not scrimping on the President’s hired help.)

I am no different, whether yelping with delight as a teen-ager, as Stephen Segal broke bones Aikido-style, or whooping with dismay as another head dropped in Game of Thrones. Like I said, I’m no different. It’s a part of the human psyche, and deny it at your peril. Repressed emotions, in my experience, are far more powerful than those honestly expressed.

“Dead Men Don’t Look Like Me” is a powerful new book, for all of the reasons above. Recently published by TBW Books in Oaktown, (as they call Oakland,) the small, black soft-cover book contains a trove of images found by one Mike Brodie in 2006. The book was put together by the publisher, Paul Schiek, with an opening essay by Vince Aletti.

Speaking of Oaktown, I recently read that there have been a spate of robberies of late, where photographers, like us, have been relieved of their heavy camera equipment. (Thoughtful burglers, no?) Televison news vans have been jacked too, multiple times. My wife’s friend swears that every major item in her home has been bolted to the floor. Her neighbors, she claims, have all done the same. Welcome to California in the 21st Century.

The book, though, remains rooted in the middle of the 20th. (Yes, I do remember to review the books from time to time.) The photos contained within were made in a Georgia prison; each image a portrait of an incarcerated inmate. Without the provided backstory, you’d probably figure that out for yourself.

They’re all white, as Mr. Aletti points out, and in the range of 25-40. Conmen, grifters, fighters, killers, car theives, rapers, hustlers, and maybe even one or two who didn’t do it. (Is everyone always innocent in their minds?) Most, if not all, have that look about them. Trouble, but the kind that makes you look twice. Dark charisma.

We’ve all seen books of found photos before. This time, the photographer was maybe some prison guard named PorkPie, who took his job seriously. Even mug shots can have class, after all. (Thanks, PorkPie.)

I love flipping through these pages. The images are not really that old, so maybe some of these guys are still alive. Drinking cold, cheap beer on a trailer porch. Shooting cans, laughing with a deep smoker’s growl, and telling tales of all the stuff they did before they got caught.

Bottom Line: A gem of found robber portraits

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There Are 8 Comments On This Article.

  1. Full Disclosure: Books are provided by Photo-Eye in exchange for links back for purchase.

    Books are found in the bookstore and submissions are not accepted.

  2. It should probably be noted that these are alterations/interpretations/revisions of the original photos. So while the hypothetical Porkpie may indeed have taken his job seriously, it was Paul Schiek’s editorial eye that brought the “class.” Whether or not Schiek achieved what he set out to do is subjective, but the publisher’s description of the book makes it clear that Schiek’s process of cropping, rephotographing, enlarging, reprinting, etc. was intended to “imbue them with personal and cultural meaning beyond their original purpose.”

  3. Every five or so years, a book or exhibit of anonymous mugshots, prison photos, photo booth portraits or just plain trashed and found portraits emerge. And they inevitably have one thing in common- they’re usually quite good, sometimes exceptionally so, as is the case here (even if they have been somewhat altered from their original form). And of course, there’s a lesson (or two) to be had- why is it that exceptional photographic portraits (something that can be so very difficult to accomplish even by the best of professionals) can be made so well, so often, so completely unintentionally?

    I saw the exhibit in San Francisco and they really excelled on the gallery walls; the book seems to do them justice as well. Minimal equipment, zero artistic intent- and work arguably equal to any Avedon. Luck, acquired taste, or the mathematical inevitability of a bastardized/mechanical art form? I was going to close with- can’t wait to see what’s found in the trash in the next five years. But it’s already being celebrated from the streets of Detroit…

    • Stan, I think you give the unknown photographer here too little credit. The photographer obviously was a skilled technician with a clear purpose. He had access to a rarely seen group of subjects at a decisive time in their lives (presumably right after arrest). I’m not surprised the pictures are strong. Besides, artistic intent often manifests itself as artifice, when really a photograph only needs its message and methods to be aligned, as they are here.

      And who knows? Maybe the prison guard (or whoever) who shot these dreamt of being a famous photographer. After all, Avedon got his start shooting mug shots in the merchant marine.

      • Yes, perhaps, as far as skill. But I hardly think the original photographer of this group of portraits, or the ones found in Detroit- or the ones taken in the death camps of Cambodia were taken with any artistic merit in mind.

        • As well as the skill at ‘taking’, which is undeniable, if only a technical thing that may be utterly procedural and lacking in art, the fact of what/when the camera is pointed at is a large part of the ‘genius’ of the photograph. (as Peter says a ‘decisive time in their lives’).

          Intention may be absent at the time of taking, but then the act of editing, curating, printing adds an element of making which may have been missing initially.

          Maybe the thing intrinsic to a portrait that makes it work more powerfully in this way is because it’s a time-machine journey into a life. These images have power because they are totalities. We will never know another thing about these faces and by looking into those eyes, our mortality is reflected back from them.

    • well, Avedon learned photography by taking thousands of ID photos while in the merchant marines and it was a vernacular that he came back to for most of his critically acclaimed portrait work, not a surprise that these are the equal, they are the same.