Investigating Crime

Investigating Crime

Students pore over Mark Michaelson’s collection of early 20th-century mugshots. | photo by Jo Sittenfeld MFA 08 PH

From Lizzie Borden’s infamous ax murders in the 19th century to the slaying of innocents examined in Truman Capote’s 20th-century masterpiece In Cold Blood to modern-day television series like Dateline and Snapped, we are irresistibly fascinated by what motivates people to break the law. In True Crime, a popular Wintersession class taught by Literary Arts + Studies Lecturer Phil Eil, RISD students examine the genre through a multimedia lens.

“What I really love about teaching liberal arts at RISD,” says Eil, “is having the freedom to experiment and tailor the classes I teach to make them exciting and effective.” That includes taking students on eye-opening field trips and inviting real-world experts into the classroom. “I like breaking down the wall between academia and real life,” he explains. “These are the kinds of lessons students really respond to.”

At the beginning of Wintersession, students in True Crime visited the Lizzie Borden Bed & Breakfast Museum in Fall River, MA to see for themselves what Eil describes as its “weird mix of kitsch and serious material.” He also lined up such guest speakers as local crime reporter Amanda Milkovits and noted mugshot collector Mark Michaelson, who was profiled in the 2014 documentary Mugshot.

Michaelson wowed students with his collection of early 20th-century black-and-white mugshots, which he began amassing when eBay first came online in the mid 1990s. He has since gathered more than 10,000 haunting photos of men and women – many of them black-eyed and bandaged – glaring at the camera. Selections from his collection have been exhibited in the US and abroad and published in the compendium Least Wanted: A Century of American Mugshots.

“I’ve become so fond of these people,” Michaelson told students as he showed samples of his favorite photos. In response to a question about whether the images should be considered art, he responded, “Not every one is art in my opinion. I’m always editing and curating the collection, identifying particular examples as art. It’s kind of like Marcel Duchamp’s found objects.”

Michaelson is currently working on a second book focused on the photographs of women in his collection, many of whom were arrested for pickpocketing, gambling and prostitution. The images have inspired street art in NYC and Paris and have been studied by fashion historians. Singer Morrissey even used a selection of Michaelson’s mugshots as a backdrop for his touring stage show.

“I really like how the class pulls from different media and traces these themes through to the modern day,” says sophomore Kiely Berg 18 GD. “I’m working on a paper about a former meth dealer from my hometown – Portland, OR – who went on to found a company that employs a lot of ex-cons. It’s a modern version of the hero’s journey, the classic tale of redemption.”

Berg says that she got a lot out of Amanda Milkovits’ visit. “She addresses each crime differently in her reporting,” she explains. “And it was interesting to hear how she decides to present each story.”

This is precisely the kind of insight Eil hopes students will take away from the class. “Crime is such an enormous cultural force in American life,” he notes, citing such examples as “the latest trial, indictment, primetime TV shows, the Black Lives Matter movement.... I want to leave students with a toolkit of critical skills to help them understand how these stories are being packaged and to remind them that news stories don’t just appear out of thin air. They are created via very specific decisions.”

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