French criminologist Alphonse Bertillon believed each person’s physical measurements were as distinct as their fingerprints, and devised the first modern mug shots as part of his classification system in the 19th century. Using the still-new medium of photography, each person was captured both from the front and in profile. The idea was that the shape of the ears, the circumference of the head, and other such undisguisable characteristics could be used to identify criminals at a time when eyewitness reports still guided arrests.
Bertillon’s idea that every person had totally unique measurements is now mostly debunked (thanks in part to the case of two William Wests with nearly identical physical characteristics, aside from their fingerprints). Adding to the disregard of chance in his work, and the collapse of his reputation through his poor handwriting analysis that figured in the Dreyfus Affair, it was a convoluted system replaced in law enforcement by simpler fingerprinting. Bertillon’s system also reflected racist applications of eugenics and phrenology, and laid the groundwork for problematic profiling in the 20th century. Yet his mug shots endure as an intriguing form of early portraiture, and his crime scene photographs still startle through his inventive technique, which involved a camera positioned high on a tripod.
Bertillon is included in Crime Stories: Photography and Foul Play at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which brings together some 70 works from the museum’s collections. The exhibition is a bit disjointed, presenting contemporary art like Andy Warhol’s overplayed “Electric Chair” and Larry Clark’s portrait of two swaggering Oklahoma robbers alongside graphic photographs from crime scenes. The most famous crime photographer, Weegee, is of course included, as is Alexander Gardner’s sequence on the hanging of the Lincoln assassination conspirators.
Crime Stories presents Bertillon as part of the visual culture of crime. It avoids any of the complicated profiling aspects of his work, such as his publishing of “les races sauvages [the savage races]” while he was considering his bertillonage system of anthropometry.
Crime Stories includes 60 of Bertillon’s “Mug Shots of Suspected Anarchists from French Police Files” from 1891 to 1895, a fascinating grid of late 19th-century Parisian faces, in which you can spy anarchist bomber Ravachol, whose 1892 arrest was facilitated by the photograph. There’s also an album of Bertillon’s Paris crime scene photography, open to a page showing a woman collapsed on a zigzag-patterned wood floor, the detached aerial view feeling like a film noir still. (The museum has the whole album digitized online, although be warned these are photographs of murders, and some are quite grotesque.)
Bertillon’s system was successful in some ways. Before his work, there was no easy way to identify repeat offenders, whereas with his system the photographs, and measurements of such things like the angles of a skull, provided a way to record serial criminals.
The Paris police started using his system in 1883. NPR’s All Things Considered, in their story on Bertillon, reports that in 1884 alone “Bertillon’s system helped Parisian police identify 241 repeat offenders.” In the following years, it was adopted across the United States and Great Britain.
Fingerprinting ultimately made Bertillon’s system obsolete, as it was a much easier process for the average police officer, and, oddly, was the one distinct physical attribute Bertillon overlooked. On his tombstone in Père Lachaise Cemetery, he’s still proudly immortalized in metal, examining his measuring tools, and the camera that proved to be his most enduring legacy. His systematic method of documentary photography is now an intriguing work of 19th-century portraiture, even if that was never his intent.