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.
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.
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.