|Dustin Leavitt (b. 1955) is a writer and visual artist. He received his B.A. in English Literature from the University of Arizona in 1978 and his M.F.A. in Creative Writing from the same institution in 2002.
In the 1970s Leavitt worked on a tramp freighter in the Bering Sea and as a square-rig sailor in the Caribbean. In the early 1980s he took up commercial fishing in Hawaii and then worked in the exhibitions departments of several art museums. He ran the exhibitions production department of The Center for Creative Photography from 1990 until 2002. In 2004 he fetched up on the shores of academia and is currently an Associate Professor teaching in the Creative Writing and Visual & Media Studies departments of the University of Redlands. He lives half the year in Southern California and the other half in Tucson, Arizona.
Leavitt produces drawings, photographs, visual book works, and works of writing. His writing has appeared in a variety of periodicals, journals, and anthologies, and his visual work in gallery and museum exhibitions.
Artist Statement for Dustin Leavitt’s Bertillonage Series
By the end of the nineteenth century the use of mug shots had become common in law enforcement practice, and now, after more than a century of use, their formal conventions are recognizable by practically everyone as indicators of criminality. Among those formal conventions we could include the iconic pairing of frontal and profile views and the absence of anything in the photograph’s background that might signify either the subject’s life history or alleged transgression, which is to say, anything that might divert attention away from the photograph’s primary purpose, which is to represent a criminal. Mug shots take minimalism to an extreme, and thus one might ask, given that they provide so little, how do they seem to say so much? Given their apparent lack of visual evidence, how do they purport to represent criminality? At this point I’d like to propose a potentially useful aesthetic opposition: inscription as opposed to representation.
The move from representation to inscription requires some background. When photographs began to appear in criminal courts in the mid-nineteenth century they didn’t enjoy the unquestioning evidentiary authority they have in more recent times. Initially, photographs were not admitted as evidence themselves, but as supplements to eyewitness accounts, like sketches, maps, and diagrams. The rise of the photograph as an objective representation of fact required the development of an understanding that viewed objectivity as a product of means from which the human hand and mind were absent. The mechanical camera was one such means, but its recognition and widespread acceptance as such were gradual.
Law enforcement agencies began collecting photographic representations of known criminals very early on. The medium’s reproducibility and relatively low cost allowed these representations to be shared among police stations, where they were collected, along with narrative accounts of the criminals’ histories and biographical information, in albums known as “rogues’ galleries.” The albums, however, were of limited use because, without a strategy for accessing the information they contained, they couldn’t be mobilized.
Then, in1879, a man named Alphonse Bertillon, working for the Paris Prefecture of Police, developed a system of classification that enabled law enforcement agencies to effectively store and exchange criminal records. At the heart of Bertillon’s system was a file card, now known as a Bertillon card. On one side of the card a person’s front- and side-view photographs were printed. The other side was inscribed with the person’s detailed physical description and a set of their anthropometric measurements. Bertillon cards were classified by first subdividing them according to the anthropometric measurements and then further subdividing them into categories of “small,” “medium,” and “large.” These categories of cards were further divided by eye color and were finally filed according to ear length. While the system may appear somewhat arbitrary, it wasn’t the representations themselves that mattered but the resulting archive’s “systemicity,” which allowed law enforcement agencies to access information about individuals with relative ease.
With the Bertillon card, mug shots as photographic representations of criminals became part of a system of inscription, and over time, came to be read as inscriptions themselves of criminality. In fact, at the level of pure depiction, criminality can’t be read in a mug shot photograph. It’s only in the photographic image as an inscription of criminality that criminality can be read, and that inscription isn’t primarily material but visually rhetorical. In other words, it’s by virtue of context and formal presentation, not material evidence, that a mug shot depicts criminality.
A photographs’ inscriptive power of persuasion thus depends not on the photograph per se, but on our reading(s) of it. It arises from a complex entanglement of what in the process of reading we recognize as denotative on the one hand and connotative on the other. A photograph’s denotative information is that which is irreducible: what the camera records. Connotative information consists of what exceeds denotation’s degree zero. In a manner of speaking, connotative information is what we “read into” a photograph, it’s “story.” At the level of denotation, photographs don’t contain stories. They only contain what the camera “saw” in a split second. The stories we imagine photographs tell are, in fact, stories we tell ourselves.
Yet, they feel true, often irrefutably true. This is where photography works its magic on us. To put it simply, while a photograph’s denotative information is limited to what the camera recorded in a split second, nevertheless, that information is dense, so dense it exerts an almost gravitational pull on us. It draws us irresistibly into the photograph’s scene. It puts us there in a way that feels real. This effect, which feels so natural, naturalizes by association anything “entangled” with it, including the stories we tell ourselves about what photographs denote. The reality effect of a photograph’s denotative information invests its connotations with what feels like truth. And what’s more, the resulting “truths” we thus tell ourselves about photographs reciprocally invest those photographs with another kind of truth value––evidentiary value––such that we are able to equate photographs and all they contain, including the stories we tell ourselves about them, with the living realities going on at the time the photographs were taken.
The drawings in the Bertillonage series are based on mid-century mug shot photographs. I elected to use them because they are iconic––which is to say, prescriptive––and yet individually compelling. In other words, they presented themselves to me as already interestingly ambiguous. They seemed to defy their existence as inscriptions in much the same way their subjects seemed to defy the institutional practice to which they were being subjected (or so I told myself based on my reading of the expressions on their faces).
But to have approached the project merely to comment on the criminal justice system would have been too literal and uncomplicated for my taste. The relationship between what is foregrounded and what is back-grounded in a picture interests me as much as what is foregrounded and back-grounded in a person. Formal convention tells us that what is large and centrally situated in a picture, especially when it’s a human face, is the picture’s important subject. But what if what’s large and central in a picture serves, rather, to provide what surrounds it a pictorial space to exist? And what happens to that formal convention when we begin to pay as much attention to the background as to what’s foregrounded? And what happens if we play with other formal conventions that typically and invisibly determine how a picture should be read? What happens is that well-worn paths of interpretation are closed to us and we must seek out new ones. As viewers and interpreters of pictures, we are given the opportunity to tinker with established configurations of knowledge in pursuit of heuristic value and transformative potential. Which is not really much different from the opportunity artists present themselves with whenever they undertake an artistic project.
In the online Oxford English Dictionary, the citation for the verb to draw is fifty-one pages long. Clearly this is a word replete with possibility. The word’s significations include traction, attraction, a drawing in or together, and extraction, withdrawal or removal, all of which anyone who draws will recognize as elements of the act of drawing. Its various forms, from Old through Middle to Modern English, relate it to the words drag and draught, as in both drafting, a form of drawing, and draft horse, a creature that drags things from one place to another, thus justifying the inclusion of “drag-and-drop” in the contemporary drawer’s lexicon and tool box.
Drawing is a technology, an assemblage of techniques that change and adapt to make things that are only just in the process of being imagined, and a drawing, produced in this state of technical flux, is the material trace of the imagination at work, of an idea being thought. The established techniques required to make things that have already been imagined and have been made over and over again for the last couple of hundred years are only a small part of what the technology of drawing can include.
The poet David Antin’s comments about his pencil are instructive in this regard. He has a number of times in various contexts spoken of a pencil that once had a point but that has become worn down. In his stories about the pencil he doesn’t discard it but adapts what it can do now to accomplish something that it couldn’t accomplish before. He writes that “if it was once useful, then there is some possibility that you can recover it by placement of it in some odd position. That is, you can retrieve its meaning capabilities in some way.” The implication is that the proverbial sharpened pencil’s meaning capability is time sensitive, that either what the sharpened pencil is capable of is temporally limited or that the use to which it is appropriately put is. Probably both. The point is that any technique with meaning capability is recuperable in the twenty-first-century artistic milieu. And any new technique with meaning capability is potentially equally useful. The fetishization of the techniques and specific virtuosities that found their full expression in the European Salons and Academies of the nineteenth century is commonplace in both the commercial marketplace and popular imagination, but really, the question of whether a contemporary drawing properly deploys a nineteenth-century technique is moot unless one is intent on reproducing a nineteenth-century artwork.
I’m reluctant to speak at length about my own technique. I think that to fully understand an artist’s technique one must watch the artist at work. Besides, the viewer of a picture can’t participate in the deployment of the techniques commensurate with its making but that viewer is a key player in the making of the picture’s meaning. And so that’s what I’m most inclined to spend time talking about.
I used only graphite and toner to make the drawings in the Bertillonage series, but I deployed the ancillary technology of photography and a wide variety of techniques, including transfer, smearing, burnishing, erasing, and drafting, the selection of which was in part determined by the form of graphite (powder, stick, pencil) I applied to a given passage of the picture.