All-Star Mug Shots


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We're looking at Jane Fonda and Malcolm X. Jane Fonda is hot pink and she's holding her fist up in the air, offering "Power to the People." She is smug. Malcolm X is looking decidedly pre-Nation of Islam underneath a fedora and behind a pair of eyes that might as well be glaring at Ms. Fonda's upraised fist, imagining what he'd like to do with a fist of his own. Both have just been arrested. These are their mug shots.

We're in Russell Young's Williamsburg studio, looking at his "Pig Portraits." Through research, eBay and various legal avenues, Young hunts down celebrity mug shots. Once he has his hands on a mug shot he likes, he blows it up five feet tall by four feet wide, then silkscreens it upon a canvas in a uniform color. Some are harder to obtain than others. "Here in New York," says Young, "there's a freedom-of-information act. But there's one person. They won't give me De Niro's. They keep stalling. They're a big fan of him."

The Fonda and Malcolm pieces are two that he suggests be hung as a diptych. Like his day-glo yellow Sid Vicious that hangs beside a fuchsia Elvis Presley. "Say with this, with Malcolm X and Jane Fonda, you know there's obviously a whole parallel timeline," says Young. "There's a political and social conversation going on between the two pieces. As there would be with the Sid and Elvis."

Originally from England, Young made his name first as a photographer and music video director. The first record cover he shot was George Michael's Faith.

"Good break," he says. About four years ago, though, he gave up photography and directing altogether. "I sort of felt that I didn't really have anything fresh to say. And the same people were coming to my camera for like the fourth, fifth or sixth time. I mean with George Michael probably half the pictures you've ever seen of him were mine." When his efforts to start up an Internet company got cut off at the knees, he decided to finance himself as a painter.

"I started to do big abstracts and everything like that. They were colorful." He turns my attention to the gray Manhattan skyline through the windows of his warehouse space. It's a rainy day. "And I used to look out my window and go, 'Where the hell do you see all this color?'"

His background in graphic design gave him a predilection for the silkscreen process. And as a glamour photographer, he was once in a sense an architect of the culture of celebrity. Pig Portraits was a natural fit for Young.

"They were meant to be anti-celebrity portraits. They were really meant to not?to take a dig at my former career I guess. As a release. But they ended up?I think I've made them look better than they do in some of the sessions."

The Al Pacino is so beautiful I have to ask if it's a real mug shot. It looks like it could have been a publicity still for Dog Day Afternoon. The Jane Fonda could grace the cover of Mother Jones. And then there's Mickey Rourke, who once hired Young for a shoot.

"He wanted to look cool, hard, mean, rough. And I did that. But then I see his mug shot and he looks cooler, meaner, harder, rougher than I ever? And this is 4 in the morning after beating up Carre Otis. So it was sort of ironic. I think I've made them sort of bigger idols than they normally are seen."

Young would only shy away from working with a mug shot for personal reasons, such as if the subject was a friend (George Michael post-restroom visit won't be added to the series anytime soon). But the story behind the arrest, he says, could never make him shy away from a particular photo. The story, in fact, is often what he's most excited about, as with Sid Vicious.

"Sid has just killed Nancy. I guess it was a few hours before. He killed Nancy. And apparently, you know, out of his head and didn't really remember doing it. So I guess he may be just starting to realize it. So it's sort of fairly interesting. He may just be coming to." All I can think about is how much Sid looks like a pretty, young Bob Dylan in the photo.

The back story leads him to hang Lee Harvey Oswald's smirking head beside Juliette Lewis (donated to the artist by the star of The Other Sister herself). "It sort of struck me that he'd killed a president. And she was underage drinking at a club. And they go through exactly the same?I mean I know we have to have a standard criminal process. But they go through exactly the same criminal process."

The most disturbing piece in the studio is not a headshot, it's the back cover of the Post from Sept. 13, a photo of Mohammed Atta, blown up to that same five-foot length. This is half of a diptych. The other half is a grid of the 343 photos of the murdered firefighters printed in The New York Times. It was commissioned by Art Heals for a charity event to benefit a Sept. 11 orphans fund.

"It was about scale, really. Because at the time there were meant to be 6000 people killed in the terrorist attacks," he says. When 6000 dead are divided by the 19 killers, that grid of 343 can represent the body count for which each terrorist was responsible. Though the photo is not part of the series and will probably never be hung with the others, it is nevertheless unsettling to watch Atta get put back into the pile of beautiful celebrities, just underneath a young Sinatra.

Working with amateur photography clearly tickles him. He leads me to a pair of Polaroids on his wall, one of an unattractive woman's asshole, the other of that same woman's crotch.

"Italian housewives from the 80s," he says proudly. He bought them over the eBay "mature" section. "Polaroids fascinate me anyhow. As in, you don't have to put it through a processing shop. So it's a very private, personal thing. And I think that the images people create on Polaroids are fascinating."

Young plans to use them for a future project. "I guess it's the darker side of life I like to explore and to work on."

Russell Young's work can be seen at www.russellyoung.com.

Bob Powers





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