Tableau synoptic des traits physionomiques: pour servir a l'étude du "portrait parlé"
Alphonse Bertillon (French, 1853–1914)
Gelatin silver print
Image: 39.4 x 29.5 cm (15 1/2 x 11 5/8 in.)
Twentieth-Century Photography Fund, 2009
Not on view
Nineteenth-century police headquarters were host to disorganized "rogues’ galleries" swollen with photographic portraits of criminals, which turned even the simplest of searches into a Sisyphean labor. As a response, police clerk Alphonse Bertillon introduced a rigorous system of classification, or signalment, to help organize archives, a process that included not only quantitative anthropometric measurements of the head, body, and extremities but also qualitative descriptions of the face. Photography’s potential for exactitude made it a crucial tool for Bertillon’s system, and his portrait parlé—the basis for today’s mugshot—posited a powerful analogy between a photographic likeness and the ink fingerprint. Akin to a cheat-sheet for police clerks, this composite photograph illustrates how the mugshot could yield a series of classifications, dividing the male criminal’s face into discrete units of information. Such points of identification include the precise differentiation between left ear and right, the angle of inclination of the chin, and the pattern of the folds on the brow. Although intended merely as a filing aide, this image of the human face in all its striations of repetition and difference renders surveillance as a terrifying manifestation of the modern sublime.
[Andrew Cahan: Bookseller, Ltd., Chapel Hill, NC]
The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "Johnson Gallery, Selections from the Collection 57," August 22, 2011–January 9, 2012.