Saturday, 1 February 2014

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By the last quarter of the 19th century, the Industrial Revolution, famine and starvation had drawn many families away from the country toward industrialized cities such as Liverpool, Birmingham, Glasgow and London and as a result all were overrun with crime. The application of photography to bureaucratic and surveillance technology within an increasingly centralized government body unsure of how to maintain social order within its own expanding industrialized cities was, by the 1870s an issue of utmost importance. Increasingly, before the creation of a centralized police force many localized forces had made attempts of decreasing the chances of recidivism in the criminal population through the means of a photographic identification system. However without a centralized police force nor a combination of bureaucracy and photography these rarely worked.

The ways and means in which the state identified and surveyed the criminal body in the 19th century was employed using older ideas of physiognomy and phrenology and applying it to photography. These images were dissected, cut up and codified into an order, which could be filed away and brought out for later scrutiny and identification by a series of trained professionals. In other words, the body of the criminal was made an archive.

Eliza Farnham became one of the first to apply photography to the surveillance of others. In 1846, in the United States, her publication, Rationale of Crime, used engravings made from Dageurreotypes made by Mathew Brady. Her theories  incorporated ideas of physiognomy and phrenology, made fashionable by Franz Josef Gall in the early 19th century, which had already set unsurpassable distinctions between lower and upper classes through “zones of deviance and respectability” in interpretations of the shape of the skull. Farnham believed that her studies could have a reformative effect on her subjects, but by dividing them according to race, ethnicity, gender, class and age, and by providing commentary upon their skull shapes, she automatically separates them into the ‘type’ of the surveyed.

In England, during the 1850’s, Dr. Hugh Welch Diamond became one of the first people to apply photography to the surveillance of others, albeit with humanistic intentions. Diamond was the residential superintendent of the Surrey County Lunatic Asylum from 1848 to 1858 and it was there that his experiments with photography and mental illness began. Photography was generally believed to be the answer for the need to legitimize the burgeoning pseudo-science of physiognomy championed by Johan Casper Lavater in the eighteenth century.

Utilising Frederick Scott Archer’s wet-colodion process, Diamond set about capturing the female inmates of the Surry County Lunatic Asylum. Diamond was an advocate of visual imagery as therapy for his patients and was generous in his use of photography, allowing for the self-reflection required in order for the patient to view and comment upon their own rehabilitation.

His paper to the Royal Society in 1856, listed three possible applications of his photography to the “mental phenomena of insanity”; A.) as a method of treating the physiognomies  of the mentally ill for study, B.) of treating the mentally ill through the presentation of an accurate self image, and, most importantly here C.) for documenting the faces of patients to facilitate identification for later readmission and treatment.

Adolphe Quetelet believed that statistical data could identify a composite or average man through large aggregates of statistical data. In his 1835 treatise ‘Sur l’homme’, Quetelet relied upon the central conceptual strategy of social statistics in order to seek statistical regularities in birth, death and crime. From Quetelet on, social statisticians become obsessed with anthropometrical researches, focusing both on the skeletal proportions of the body and the volume and configuration of the head.

Francis Galton believed in statistical analysis also but his research was based upon an unwavering belief in the moral degeneracy of the lower classes. Between 1877 and 1896 Galton produced a series of images that would influence eugenics into the 20th century. Galton superimposed photographs of varying ethnic and racial ‘types’ such as Jewish, Irish and African men, women and children on top of each other, creating a composite image. This resultant, blurry image was identified by Galton as the definitive description of each ethnicity and would be used as a basis and an argument for the social betterment through breeding. Here the body was codified and given order according to a predetermined and biased set of instructions. Like the archive, photography is only given a voice by those that wield the power. Sometimes the archive is silent and sometimes it is loud.

Alphonse Bertillon was a file clerk in a Paris prefecture in 1893 when he began to establish what would become known variously as the Bertillon system, Bertillonage and the Signaletic notice. Up to this point no perfect system had yet been developed to decrease recidivism in criminals, partly due to no systematized filing system being agreed apon by differing bureau’s and partly due to the criminals ability to change thir appearance. Desperate to make a name for himself in the burgeoning world of criminal identification and to impress his Anthropometrist father, Bertillon devised a system which combined both anthropometric data and photography into one taxonomic system.

Upon entering the prefecture, the suspect would firstly be measured according to set requirements that Bertillon regarded to be constant in an adult body, then combined with a shorthand verbal description of distinguishing marks.

For photography, Bertillon insisted on the maintenance of a standard focal length, even and consistent lighting and a fixed distance between sitter and camera. He had the sitter photographed in both profile and frontal views for ease of identification by other sitters. He organized grids of the male head using sectional photographs, as the brow largely remains the same throughout life. He did the same with the ear, which like the fingerprint, rarely changes and is unique.

After the measurements and photographs were taken a series of individual cards were made up from which records could be recovered in short order. By organizing his measurements in to subdivisions, Bertillon was able to file 100,000 records into a grid of file drawers, with the smallest subset of any one drawer consisting of only a dozen identification cards. Bertillon identified his system as infallible and from the years 1883 to 1893 identified 4,564 recidivists.

Bertllon sought to reinvent the practice of physiognomy using the cold, hard science of statistical data. The camera is integrated into a larger ensemble which could be described as a sophisticated form of the archive in which the central artifact wielding the most power becomes the filing cabinet itself. Bertillon devised a classification schema for human beings, which, much like the archive itself, ordered, separated and taxonomised individual cases into an aggregated system of identification. Unlike Francis Galton or Eliza Farnham, Bertillon was not influenced by a biased ethnographic interpretation of racial or ethnic types. His form of statistical analysis paved the way for the cold, hard objectivity of 20th century police-work unadorned by class or racial interpretations.

“What we have in this standardized image is more than a picture of a supposed criminal. It is a portrait of the product of the disciplinary method: the body made object; divided and
studied; enclosed in a cellular structure of space whose architecture is the file-index;
made docile and forced to yield up its truth; separated and individuated; subjected and made subject. When accumulated, such images amount to a new representation of society.”
- John Tagg, The Burden of Representation.


Dalston, Lorraine and Gallison, Peter, ‘The Image of Objectivity’, Representations 40 (Fall, 1992), pp. 81-128

Popple, Simon ‘Photography, Crime and Social Control’, Early popular Visual Culture, 3:1 (2005), 95-106.

Pearl, Sharrona ‘Through a Mediated Mirror: The Photographic Physiognomy of Dr Hugh Welch Diamond’, History of Photography, 33:3 (2009), 289-305.

Sekula, Allan, “The Body and the Archive”, October, 39 (Winter, 986), pp.3-64

Tagg, John, The Burden of Representation: Essays on Photographies and Histories, Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1988