“Prisoners”: Murder, Mayhem, And Petit Larceny By Arne Svenson’s ‘Least Wanted’ Close Ups

Arne Svenson describes the fading black and white photographs which stare back at us in antique stores and are thrown carelessly on flea market tables as “orphaned”—nameless and abandoned from the context of their history.

In his book, Prisoners, Svenson has adopted a group of forgotten children; mug shot negatives which he found, developed, and brought back from the dead.

These turn-of-the-century photographs, from the small town of Marysville, California, were taken by Clara S. Smith, a family portrait photographer. A backdrop of a garden with diffused lighting, used for her portrait clients, was not altered when an alleged criminal was brought into her studio by the police—and for many of these men, a mug shot was surely their only means to a photographic portrait. There is a shocking beauty in Ms. Smith’s work, in her ability to capture these frightened, angry, and indifferent faces.

Above each image is an inscription with the man’s name and the crime for which he was accused: Frank White, Petit Larceny; Claude F. Hawkins, Murder. To understand a man through his image, name, and alleged crime is a glimmer into a story aching to be told, which Arne Svenson lovingly has done.

The back of the book is comprised of Svenson’s research from two local newspapers of the time, as well as prison records from San Quentin and Folsom Prison. In expanding beyond the surface, we find that a man accused of petit larceny had actually only stolen a jacket to keep himself warm.

These documents also prove that racial tensions then are not far removed from today’s—when W.M. Brown, a black man, resisted a policeman “unless shown a star or other warrant of arrest,” he was charged with disturbing the peace. Arne Svenson has released these men to us with sympathy, an otherwise impossible opportunity for many of them in their own time.

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