There is no great shortage of mug shots on the Internet. Criminal photos of 19th-century bank robbers are blogged alongside those of contemporary celebrities, proving that our interest in the guilty is wholly pervasive. And that compelling quality holds through Joanne Arnett’s textiles of woven mug shots.
“Mug shots are taken at a point between conflict and resolution,” Arnett explains. “The person being photographed is documented at a time where life has slipped out of control. There is no opportunity to prepare for the picture, and he knows it will be made public. So there is an interesting element of being alone yet also on display.” Each textile is titled after the subject’s sentence, such as, Thirty Hours Community Service, and Six Months Probation.
Part of what makes this project so special is Arnett’s social sensitivity. “It seems horribly rude to use someone’s actual mug shot, so I make my own,” she explains. Each mug shot is a self portrait, a character that Arnett creates through a fluid process. “The characters are pulled together from items in my make-up case and closet,” says Arnett. “I just start by drawing in eyebrows or combing my hair … When the face I see in the mirror looks genuine I take a picture.”
The booking information is inserted digitally, as well as repeating background patterns that somehow relate to the person portrayed. “Since the color is seen before the face is visible, I spend quite a bit of time researching colors and putting palettes together for each person.” Arnett then hand dyes the yarn before moving over to a 56″ TC-1 loom, on which she weaves the textile through rows of wire. Each portrait takes about a month, from start to finish.
With a background in fashion and photography, Arnett sought alternative processes to image making, beyond what the camera could offer. While studying at Kent State University, Arnett experimented with the school’s weaving facilities. She didn’t grow fond of the technique until she created her first woven portrait. The process, it turns out, wasn’t too far from what she already knew. “The materials I use are the same ones used in photography, they are just present in another form,” Arnett explains. “Cotton paper becomes yarn and the metals in the light sensitive emulsion become wire.” The textiles have a photorealistic look.
Through reexamining a common cultural interest like mug shots, Arnett uncovers and explains why these images enthrall us. “They elicit a unique mix of empathy and schadenfreude,” she explains. Each of the subjects featured in Arnett’s textiles, peers out at us, challenging our assumptions of a criminal face.