Faces from the Past Come into the Light


Portrait by Penelope Houston and photo collage by Xandra Ibarra


On view March 11 – June 8, 2023, San Francisco IDentities and Artists in the Archive, featuring artwork by local artists Penelope Houston and Xandra Ibarra, examine issues of representation and identity through an historic and modern lens


SAN FRANCISCO, February 22, 2023– San Francisco’s Main Library is home to the City’s official archive, the San Francisco History Center, and the James C. Hormel LGBTQIA Center, both of which have extensive collections of photography and ephemera that reflect life in the City and its prevailing social mores. Two companion exhibits, San Francisco IDentities and Artists in the Archive, plumb the Library’s collections of government-issued IDs and Police Department mug shot registries to reflect on how issues of class, gender and race evolved through the years and how the modern gaze brings a more empathetic view to these faces from the past.

Curated by San Francisco History Center Photo Curator Christina Moretta, San Francisco IDentities examines the convention of identification photographs within the History Center and James C. Hormel LGBTQIA Center archives. The exhibit mixes mug shots, passports, licenses, alien enemy registrations, club membership cards and class photos to expose identity, identification and belonging. Different types of records of individuals surface through these identification photographs, which span more than 80 years. Exploring the differences between their portraits and the context in which they were taken draws attention to the status of some marginalized communities. The identification photographs themselves explore the complexity of identity and the reductive nature of identification practices.

“These different forms of institutional photography demonstrate how identification photographs have been used to sort, shape, segregate and select subjects based on gender, occupation, social group or cultural identity,” says Moretta. “Through the curation of these objects, I got to uncover new San Francisco stories while encouraging a deeper understanding of the history of photography and of each period represented.”

While she was putting the show together, Moretta reached out to her former colleague, retired History Center staffer and founding member of the acclaimed punk band the Avengers, Penelope Houston to invite her to display her series of oil portraits, The Accused. The series is based on original photographs from police records archived at the San Francisco History Center. Houston discovered the images in mug books titled "Prostitution" and "Muzzlers"—slang for sex crimes. Although the series harks to a time when sex workers were "low women" and gay men could be charged with "crimes against nature". Houston's light and sensuous impasto treatment performs a kind of literary time travel, drawing these individuals forward to a contemporary sensitivity, revealing and in a sense returning to them what the original arrest documentation took away—their essential humanity.

"One hundred years before the selfie," says Houston, "photography was an elaborate proposition and the demeanor of the accused at that unwelcome moment of the policeman's shutter click is uniquely unmasking. I was struck by the difference in expressions in the frontal shots—pleading or defiant—and the more withdrawn introspection in the profile shots. I took pleasure in painting them, and in the process of discovering and getting to know these individuals."

During the summer, Moretta met Xandra Ibarra, one of the Library’s first Artists-in-Residence, a program supported by the San Francisco Arts Commission. While doing research in the History Center, Ibarra became fascinated, particularly with the late 19th and 20th century judicial records of those working in underground economies like sex work. They became the jumping off point for a new body of work titled, Of Ill Fame, a constellation of photographic works that draw from the ephemera associated with police and court records located in the Library. According to Ibarra, “I situate these historical subjects to further consider the racial and sexual dimensions of contemporary capitalism, incarceration, and the gig economy. My hope is to foster dialogue about stigma, criminalization, and iconography of sex workers.”

Together, The Accused and Of Ill Fame form the companion exhibit, Artists in the Archive, which will be on view alongside of San Francsico IDentities on the 6th floor of the Main Library. Houston and Ibarra’s portraits reimagine the systems that shape our understanding of gender and race within the historical record and reveal the complex emotions of the women captured on film. Their faces function doubly as sites of individual recognition, and also as collective registration, where race and sex are primary concerns.

Public Programs:

Artist Talk & Opening Reception
Saturday, March 18, 1–3 p.m., San Francisco Main Library, 100 Larkin Street, 6th Floor
The public is invited to an Artist Talk and opening reception with Curator Christina Moretta and artists Penelope Houston and Xandra Ibarra who will share about their processes and the discoveries they made in creating artwork from the mug books in the San Francisco Police Department Records. Information: sfpl.org[J(1] 

Hands on History: Identification Photos into Context
Wednesday, April 12. 6:30pm, San Francisco Main Library, 100 Larkin Street, 6th Floor
Using the San Francisco Police Department mug books as an anchor for exploring the convention of identification photographs within the San Francisco archives, Penelope Houston and Xandra Ibarra’s exhibit of portraiture reimagines the systems that shape our understanding of gender and race within the historical record.

The perception of the mug shot is one of discomforting formal components: an isolated face gazing straight ahead, perceived to be emotionless based on the staging. Yet within the archives, the Prostitution mug book that both artists work from contradicts that perception, as most of the identification photographs of the women capture a range of real emotions. The face functions doubly as a site for individual recognition, where memory and emotional expression are central, and also as a collective registration, where race and sex are primary concerns. The original artwork created by Houston and Ibarra speak to the complexities of identification photography.  Information: sfpl.org

About Penelope Houston

In the late 70s, Penelope Houston moved from her home in the Pacific Northwest to attend the San Francisco Art Institute. Soon her visual arts education was sidetracked by the formation of the critically acclaimed proto-punk band the Avengers. With such incisive political anthems as "The American in Me" and "We Are the One," the band achieved international renown, opening for the Sex Pistols final show at Winterland Ballroom in 1978. Since then, Houston has performed more than a 1000 shows with the Avengers and her solo bands in Europe and the USA, and released 13 albums. Throughout this time, visual art remained essential and in recent years she has returned to painting, receiving a degree in studio art from SFSU. More of her work can be viewed at penelopehouston.com.

About Xandra Ibarra

Xandra Ibarra, who sometimes works under the alias of La Chica Boom, is an Oakland-based visual and performance artist from the US/Mexico border of El Paso/Juarez. Ibarra works across performance, video, and sculpture to address abjection and joy and the borders between proper and improper racialized, gendered, and queer subjects.

Ibarra’s work has been featured at El Museo de Arte Contemporañeo (Bogotá, Colombia), The Broad Museum (LA), ExTeresa Arte Actual (DF, Mexico), The Leslie-Lohman Museum (NYC) and Anderson Collection (Stanford) to name a few.  Recent residencies include San Francisco Public Library (via SF Arts Commission), Vermont Studio Center, and Headlands Center for the Arts. She has been awarded the Fleishhacker Eureka Fellowship, Creative Capital Award, Lucas Visual Arts Fellowship, Queer Art Prize for Recent Work, Art Matters Grant, NALAC Fund for the Arts, Eisner Film and Video Prize, Murphy & Cadogan Contemporary Art Award and the Franklin Furnace Performance and Variable Media Award.  Her work has been featured in ArtforumPaper MagazineHyperallergicHuffington Post, ArtNews and in various academic journals nationally and internationally. More information can be found at Xandraibarra.com.

Of Ill Fame is presented in partnership with the San Francisco Arts Commission (SFAC). Ibarra is one of four current artists participating in the SFAC Artist in Residence Program. Launched in 2015, this program builds partnerships with City Departments in order to provide unique artist residencies that result in strengthening the value of artists participating in and responding to the advancement of civic dialogue. 


February 22, 2023