Who would have guessed the father of forensic photography started out as a paper pusher?
Alphonse Bertillon was born in Paris in 1853. After a string of odd jobs and false starts, he finally found work as a copy clerk in the criminal records office of the Paris Police Department.
It’s safe to say that Bertillon was a tidy man; if he had anything going for him, it was an obsessive sense of order and fine eye for detail. What he saw at the police station shocked him – heaps of crime scene materials left in unsorted piles, profile photos of convicts taken by sloppy photographers with subpar equipment. A few of the criminals even knew to shake their heads just as the camera clicked, blurring their faces beyond recognition.
Clearly, something had to be done.
So Bertillon replaced the disorder with an extensive system of his own invention. He streamlined the filing structure and standardized forensic document examinations. He advised using chemical compounds to preserve footprints left at the scene of the crime. Most importantly, Bertillon applied a strict means of measurements to crime scene photography and conceived of the modern mug shot, creating a system of identification based on physical characteristics.
Many of Bertillon’s methods are still in use today. His astonishing crime scene photography also stood the test of time. View our list of stills from Bertillon’s own investigation albums for an extensive look at his work.
[Warning: viewer discretion is advised]
Crime Scene at 32 Rue de Turenne
In 1988, Bertillon standardized the process of photographing criminals and he is also the inventor of the mugshot.
Crime Scene at 74 Rue de Martyrs
The Bertillon system consisted of five different measurements: head length, head breadth, length of the cubit, length of the left foot, and length of the middle finger. Bertillon used mugshots to complete his method of identification.
We have Bertillon to thank for the mugshots of today. A classic mugshot involves two photos: one side-view photo, and one front-view.
An early example of collecting forensic evidence
Bertillon documented early tries at collecting evidence. Thankfully, this kind of documentation has made it much harder more criminals to get away with murder and other crimes.
Bertillon forensic photos of murder victim
Bertillon captured many murder scenes on camera.
Bertillon began his police career as a department copyist. Because he was very orderly, he was frustrated with the methods used to identify captured criminals. This led to his methods of organizing his own categorization system.
Frontispiece from Bertillon’s Identification Anthropométrique (1893)
A chart for the Bertillon Identification process.
A class on the Bertillon system, 1911
Bertillon's methods, including the mugshot, are still used today.