Two SFPL Shows Look for Humanity in City Mugshots and Official IDs

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Two oil paintings of a man's mugshots with a large mustache and a face marked with cuts and bruises
Oil paintings by Penelope Houston of a 55-year-old man named Henry Friedrichs, as seen in his 1931 mugshots. (Courtesy of the artist)

On the sixth floor of San Francisco’s main public library, there are two large antique cabinets currently serving as holding cells. Inside them are century-old mugshots from the city’s past. The cabinets are split by gender, like jails — six men in one, six women in the other. The subjects’ faces are depicted face-forward and in profile, as the cops would have directed. But these are no ordinary mugshots.

Their faces are alive with expression and color, painted out of their respective black-and-white corners from history and back into vibrant existence.

These oil paintings are the work of Penelope Houston, one-time vocalist for the legendary San Francisco punk band The Avengers and current-day artist and solo singer-songwriter.

Two paintings of mugshots of The bottom row shows a Black man with chiseled features looking defiant
Penelope Houston's painting of William Williams, arrested in 1919. (Courtesy of the artist)

Houston’s paintings of alleged criminals from San Francisco history bring humanity back to the individuals who were photographed in the middle of what was probably a thoroughly dehumanizing experience. Houston effectively relays their expressions, which vacillate between resigned indifference and barely contained contempt. One man arrested on charges related to homosexuality, William Williams, holds his head high and unrepentant. He was photographed in 1919.

Houston’s series, titled The Accused, is on display as part of Artists in the Archive, a two-person show with Xandra Ibarra, whose work transforms SFPD mugshots into large-scale photo collages. Ibarra’s images, the result of a San Francisco Arts Commission residency at the SFPL, invite the viewer to focus particularly on the eyes of the accused. In one piece, Keeping a Disorderly House of Prostitution, a plump white woman with rail-thin eyebrows wears a hardened expression — but her eyes look close to tears.

Mugshot of woman on cream paper with information on her arrest
Xandra Ibarra, 'Keeping a Disorderly House of Prostitution.' (Courtesy of SFPL)

Accompanying Houston and Ibarra’s work is a video screen showing page after page of mugshots taken between December 1918 and June 1919, as well as a seven-month period of 1938. The scans are from the SFPD Records held at the San Francisco History Center, also available online. The men featured are accused of a variety of sex crimes, including pimping. The women are all accused of sex work. The faces of the more mature women speak volumes about the toughness of their alleged profession.


In tandem with the Artists in the Archive show is San Francisco IDentities, also on display on the library’s sixth floor. This exhibit is a mishmash of identification documents from the History Center’s collections that are mostly interesting in their own right but don’t always make a lot of sense together.

There are joyous little nuggets from the city’s past, like ticket books for 1915’s Panama-Pacific International Exposition, complete with the photo IDs of official vendors. There are fascinating mugshot books and headshots of enlisted men serving in World War II. There is even, shamefully, the paperwork of German citizens residing in California who were forced to register as “Alien Enemies” in 1917.

Various forms of identification overlaid
Materials included in the 'San Francisco IDentities' exhibition. (Courtesy of SFPL)

There are less compelling artifacts on display too. Random drivers’ licenses, school photos, festival laminate passes that are less than 20 years old, and a head-scratching collection of passports. (Even as a fan of Gay American Indians founder Barbara May Cameron, I remain perplexed about how to receive seeing a copy of her passport.)

Had San Francisco IDentities stuck solely to issues relating to criminal justice — as Artists in the Archive does — a more cohesive pairing would have resulted. Still, there is much to enjoy in these companion exhibits and a mountain of food for thought. In particular, years from now, how would you best like to be remembered? For anyone who has ever been accused of a crime, you might not have much say in the matter.

‘Artists in the Archive’ and ‘San Francisco IDentities’ are on display outside the San Francisco History Center, on the sixth floor of the San Francisco Public Library (100 Larkin St.), through June 8, 2023. Details here. Houston and Ibarra will be discussing their work there on Saturday, March 18 at 1 p.m.