Caught on camera

13 January 2015
 Alphonse Bertillon, 1913.
Alphonse Bertillon, 1913.

Forensics: The anatomy of crime opens at Wellcome Collection next month. To whet your appetite for this exploration of the history, science and art of forensic medicine, Holly Story introduces us to an early technique for identifying criminals. Read it carefully to win the chance to have your face featured in a new game, Criminel, inspired by the exhibition. See below for details.

 Forensics: The anatomy of crime

Forensics: The anatomy of crime, at Wellcome Collection 26 February until 21 June.

In an age when 360 degree surveillance is an unremarkable reality of our day to day lives, it is hard to imagine a time when to make a record of someone’s face you needed an artistic hand or a vivid imagination. But before the advent of photography, the faces of ordinary citizens were not often preserved on paper. Although there were skilful portrait artists, portraits were costly, the prerogative of the wealthy and the ruling classes and accuracy was not always the artist’s top priority. If you had not seen a person with your own eyes, then you had to rely on someone else’s unreliable reports of their appearance, their distinctive features or remarkable complexion to tell you what they looked like.

This made it surprisingly easy for people to assume pseudonyms or change their identities without suspicion. Career criminals used this to their advantage, taking different names each time they appeared in court to avoid the severe penalties meted out to repeat offenders. But with the invention of photography in the early 1800s, things began to change. The first commercial photography studio opened in Paris in 1841, and by 1849 100,000 portraits were taken in Paris alone. The police soon started to collect photographs to help them identify suspects.

When Alphonse Bertillon (1853-1914) began work as a records clerk in the Parisian police department in the 1870s he found a disorganised collection of photographs and eye witness accounts that the department used to identify suspects. Bertillon saw that a more thorough and standardised method for storing this information would allow the police to identify repeat offenders much more easily and he set about developing a new system by which to record the physical characteristics of each suspect.

When a suspect was detained, Bertillon would take a series of eleven measurements of the individual’s features, focussing on things that could not change or be easily disguised such as the size of the ears, nose and forehead. He would also record other distinctive features such as eye colour and marks such as tattoos.

 Small sliding compass used to measure the length and the breadth of the ear, as part of measurements taken from criminals. Paris, France, 1880.

Small sliding compass used to measure the length and the breadth of the ear, as part of measurements taken from criminals. Paris, France, 1880.

He noted all these observations, which he dubbed the portrait parlé (spoken portrait), on a card and accompanied them with a set of photographs: full-face and profile. These two simple shots provided a clear, visual record of an individual’s appearance. Together with the information on the card, the photographs captured a suspect’s physical identity so that whoever he or she claimed to be by name, the police could identify a repeat offender by their face. Bertillon had coined the “mug shot”.

By 1884 Bertillon had identified over 200 repeat offenders. His new system, which he called anthropometry, was adopted by police forces in the UK, Europe and the USA. It became known as Bertillonage. Although in the years that followed other methods of identification such as finger printing superseded Bertillon’s original measurements, his photographic mug shot remained the gold standard for photographic identification.

 Alphonse Bertillon, 1913.

Alphonse Bertillon, 1913.

The pair of close-up shots, with a stark background and standardised lighting is now an instantly recognisable style, iconic in popular culture, that appears in everything from FBI wanted posters to fashion shoots. It seems remarkable that even when we are surrounded by faces on film and in photographs, the mug shot remains so distinctive. Perhaps what makes it so unique amongst photographs is that it maintains an unflinching commitment to accuracy over aesthetic that modern portraitists, just like their predecessors, sometimes prefer to gloss over.

Get your head in the game!

This February, 4PM Games Ltd. will launch a new detective mystery game Criminel, inspired by our Forensics exhibitionand supported by the Wellcome Trust. The game is set in Paris at the turn of the 20th century and players must solve a series of chilling murder cases using early forensics techniques. It’s a swooping, sinister adventure and we are offering one lucky person the chance to be a part of it by having their face appear in the game.

One competition winner will travel to London to meet the game’s developers and be photographed to appear in the game as a 3D computer generated character, a witness, in a unique process that would not have been unfamiliar to the meticulous Bertillon (who the main character is loosely based on).

 Screenshot from the game, Criminel.

Screenshot from the game, Criminel.

The games developers use a process called photogrammetry, which involves taking series of photos around an individual’s face, using those images to measure and create a realistic, unique, computer generated head.

As Bojan , founder of 4PM, observes “In a way, it feels like Bertillon’s work on biometrics and anthropometry have come full circle and are being used again, to create characters and criminal suspects in a game based on those exact techniques.”

To enter the competition follow @ScreenWellcome on Twitter and submit your answer to the question below in a tweet to @ScreenWellcome before Tuesday 20 January. The winner will be selected at random from all correct respondents and will be contacted by direct message, so make sure you’re following @ScreenWellcome to win!

Terms and conditions apply, so make sure you read them before entering.

The question is:

Who invented the mug shot?