When Naugahyde-smooth soul crooner Lou Rawls died recently at the age of 72, you couldn’t swing an old-school corded microphone without hitting an obituary. Amid all the media memorials, however, none came close to matching the honest intimacy of the Smoking Gun’s: a simple mug shot from a 2003 arrest on battery charges, laced with old age and tension and ugliness (Rawls was being booked for having grabbed his girlfriend by the hair and thrown her to the ground in the midst of an argument) but lit up by a smile as deceptively at ease as his ’70s hits had been. Not that the eloquence of the portrait would have surprised aficionados of the Smoking Gun’s well-tended gallery of odd and/or notable FOIA finds and other legal documents. Next to the front-page Rawls image was a link to 15 of the editors’ favorite mug shots of 2005, all previously featured on the site, and more than a few—a wary- looking 89-year-old with Alzheimer’s (charged with beating her husband to death), a 41-year-old spray-paint huffer with his face still half coated in glittery gold—are positively Avedonian in their studied balance of composition and character study.
Of course there are also the obligatory celebrity mug shots, fit for gloating voyeurism as much as for aesthetic appreciation. But while a thread of snarky, Fark-y schadenfreude does run constant through TSG’s take on the people its found narratives portray—whether it’s pop stars demanding bouquets and B-12 injections in their concert contracts or trailer park denizens going to pieces on the page of police booking forms—the sniggers are muffled by a drier, nonmoralizing curiosity that lets you come away from this banquet of venality and failure feeling less soiled than you might expect. Like any good mug shot, TSG flash-focuses every telling and incriminating detail—but ultimately leaves judgment to the judge.