Alfonse Bertillon: The Look of Criminality

After its public introduction in 1839, photography quickly became an essential tool in the collection, study, and sharing of data. In 1879, Louis-Alphonse Bertillon (1853-1914), son of a French statistician, began work as a low-level cleric job at the Prefecture of Police in Paris. His first-hand experience with the disorganized ways authorities tried to keep track of criminals led Bertillon to develop an elaborate anthropometric system. Bertillonage, as it was called, involved the systematic measurement and photography of parts of the human body— head, face, hands, forearms, and feet—in order to better distinguish between individuals and more accurately identify suspected criminals. Bertillon also pioneered the use of mug shots to track repeat offenders and introduced new crime scene techniques, such as photographing victims’ bodies from above in order to better document crime scenes. His system was widely adopted and used worldwide until it was replaced, early in the 20th century, with the less labor-intensive process of fingerprinting. But Bertillon’s legacy lives on in 21st century advances in, and reliance on, facial recognition algorithms and software.