Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations
Watch Live


Looking Back At Early Arkansas Mug Shots

Across the South and other regions of the U.S., a new form of tabloid has emerged. Rather than celebrities, these magazines show mug shots of the recently arrested — in different cities around the country. And they seem to be selling like hotcakes. In Arkansas, for example, The Slammer sells 7,000 copies a week. But law enforcement says it doesn't help solve cases — it's just voyeuristic. (Watch The Video Story)

Well before mug shots were being used in these tabloids, though, before photos were even digital, prisoner portraits were usually snapped and then thrust into drawers, many to be forgotten. In the 1970s, photographer Bruce Jackson discovered one such drawer at Cummins Prison in Arkansas. In it were dozens of prisoner portraits dating between 1915 and 1937.

Jackson, the James Agee professor of American Culture at the University of Buffalo, spent a lot of time in the '70s at Cummins, where the state of Arkansas execution chamber is located. "I thought I'd ... see what the worst prison in the U.S. looked like," he says. The result of eight visits to Cummins was a book, Killing Time: Life in the Arkansas Penitentiary.


On his last visit to Cummins, Jackson recalls, "one of the guys who took mug shots of incoming prisoners beckoned me ... 'I've got something that will interest you,' he said. I went in, he closed the door to the hall, then opened the drawer of an old wood table. It was full of loose mug shots. 'Help yourself,' he said."

The portraits have little context. "The photos of men were loose and in small brown envelopes," Jackson says. "The photos of women were in similar envelopes. There was only one photograph of a black woman. ... Most of the pictures had a yellow patina."

Until recently, there wasn't much Jackson could do to restore them from the fading. But with Photoshop and Lightroom, he was able to touch them up for another book, Pictures from a Drawer: Prison and the Art of Portraiture, which was released in 2009.

It's no less voyeuristic to look through older photos than through a mug shot tabloid. Though perhaps the years do distance us a bit from the prisoners in these portraits. Flicking through photo after photo, one notices the wardrobe, the hair, the way film somehow renders the inmates in a forgiving glow.

It makes you wonder: What will those tabloids look like years from now?


Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit