In this unpredictable world we live in, universal truths can be comforting. While it is often argued that nothing is absolute, there is one thing that we can all count on: it is really hard to take a flattering passport photo. This pearl of wisdom can be extended to driver’s licenses, student IDs, and really any other piece of officially issued photo identification. Truth be told the complexities of photo ID has an unexpected origin that can be traced back to the 19th century French criminologist Alphonse Bertillon.
While the French Police Department had used photography as an archival tool since its invention in the late 1820s, snapshots of criminals were collected in highly unorganised “rogue galleries” that made it almost impossible for any means of consistency. With suspects only identified by their names, addresses and photos, the current system lent recidivists an easy pass. Everything from the composition of the photographs, to what information was recorded, varied from file to file, making it extremely difficult to identify repeat offenders. When Alphonse Bertillon joined the Paris Police Prefecture as the records clerk in 1879, he quickly identified the need to bring order to the cluttered depository of files stored in the Parisian criminal records system. In response, he developed his own system of forensic classification, eponymously named “Bertillionage.”
Bertillonage was considered the first official standardised system of organising criminal records, and was officially adopted by the Parisian police in 1883. With his methods firmly rooted in the principles anthropometry, Bertillon measured specific physical dimensions of suspects and recorded his calculations on a series of index cards. These included the length and width of the head, left fingers, and forearm; the height of the skeleton and torso while seated; and the measurement of the criminal’s wingspan. He also recorded the camera settings, focal length, and the sitters’ position in the frame in shorthand on the index cards. By focusing on strictly quantitative data, Bertillonage sought to thwart “subjective” personal information provided by suspects. This way, if a criminal lied about their name or wore a disguise, their physical measurements could be used to identify them.
These physical qualities were also documented through a strict photographic process. Sitters would be placed in front of a plain background, and their portrait would be taken once from the front, and then from the side. Not only would the multiple perspectives allow witnesses to identify suspects from different angles, but the initial purpose of capturing a profile image was to record the intricacies of a suspect’s ears. While it is said that the eyes are the window to the soul, Bertillon believed that our right ear provided a window to our identities. He argued that while appearances age and can be altered with the help of a costume, ears were charted as an unchangeable feature: their shapes are unique to each individual, they remain constant throughout one’s life, and they are often underlooked in disguises. Bertillon recognized the value in using the ear as a common denominator for identification, and even developed custom instruments to measure the intricacies of this body part.
Of course, Bertillon’s system wasn’t flawless. For one, physical measurements can change drastically with age, and the chances of two people bearing the same proportions were not uncommon. While Bertillonage was revolutionary in its methods, the meticulous process was intensive and difficult to regulate. Police departments began to discard some of Bertillon’s more “trivial” measurements, but certain elements remained, such as recording basic physical identifiers such as a suspect’s’ height, weight, and hair colour.
While criminals are no longer identified by the characteristics of their ears, Bertillon’s technological contributions to crime photography have influenced how the medium can be used as a social inventory. Despite his commitment to objectivity in recording suspects’ measurements, Bertillon’s photographic methods simultaneously highlighted their physical subjectivities. His original techniques have given rise to the modern day mugshot, and have influenced the standards for other types of personal identification beyond the realm of forensics. So the next time you cringe at the sight of your own face on your driver’s license, know that it’s not you, it’s history.