Crime Stories: Photography and Foul Play


“In the 1870s, a Parisian policeman named Alphonse Bertillon pioneered the mug shot as part of his ‘anthropometric’ system of criminal identification based on minute physical measurements. For no pay, he spent his free hours examining inmates at La Santé prison, using calipers and rulers to record the length and width of prisoners’ fingers, noses, foreheads, and mouths. Perhaps he was seeking to demonstrate the theory that political “agitators” and other ‘moral degenerates” tended to have similar physiognomies, a popular fixation in the late 1800s. (Bertillon had no compunctions about violating his own rules of exactitude when it came to imprisoning accused enemies of France. He had no expertise whatsoever as a handwriting specialist, for instance, yet testified as one in 1894 and again in 1899 to help convict Alfred Dreyfus of treason.)

A sampling of Bertillon’s meticulous mug shots, along with about forty crime-related images from American tabloids, police files, security cameras, and photographers both anonymous and widely known, comprise the fascinating exhibition ‘Crime Stories: Photography and Foul Play,’ currently at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.”

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