A picture is paints a thousand words

From the rogues' gallery to the machine-readable I.D. card

Annette Tietenberg


Only because the social use of photography, out of the many potential modes of use, selects from the categories which organise the common perception of the world, that photographic images can be taken for an exact and objective reproduction of reality Pierre Bourdieu


Photography as a scientific instrument


In 1837, the panaroma painter and decorator, Louis Jacques Mand_ Daguerre, managed to give lasting form to a reflected image produced using a camera obscura. In order to catch the light entering the camera, he first used silver surfaces sensitised with iodine, then treated these with mercury vapour, and finally fixed the result in a warm salt solution. Within the same year, Daguerre presented the custodian of the Louvre with his first successful work: a still life. He gave the invention his name, printed a prospectus that explained the new process, and offered for sale the necessary technical equipment for the production of daguerreotypes. While able to draw attention to himself during his wanderings through Paris with his bulky equipment (in order to photograph monuments and public buildings), his advertising campaign showed little success: no potential buyers or shareholders, and above all no wealthy sponsors approached him.


Only the intervention of the influential physicist and politician, Francois Dominique Arago, brought about the desired result. On July 3rd, 1839, in a powerful speech held by Arago in his function as a member of Parliament, leader of the Paris Observatory and member of the Academy of Sciences in front of the French Chamber of Deputies , he praised the daguerreotype not only as a happy discovery for the arts , but also as a scientific instrument capable in its exactness, speed and reliability of accelerating the march of progress. The members were convinced by this argument and voted almost unanimously (237 for, 3 against) in favour of state ownership of the invention; Daguerre was rewarded with a state pension and the title of officer in the L_gion d'Honneur. In order to document the invention's technical superiority, the French government saw to it that the patent - translated into eight languages within a few weeks - was distributed throughout Europe and in the United States. This striving for hegemony was interpreted by Arago as follows: "France has adopted this invention; from the start she has shown herself so noble as to offer the invention freely to the entire world" .


Without doubt photography, until then not popular, profited from the authority of the State, although at the price of having from then on to satisfy the need for easily visible evidence. Photography traded in its mystical, alchemistic qualities and its connection with the moment for such properties as wealth of detail, precision, and faithful reproduction. For only a visual medium that seemed able to guarantee objectivity through its chemical and physical production methods could prove appropriately useful to the innovational interests of the positivist-minded scientific community of the time. The word soon spread that the person behind the camera was merely setting off a natural process, without being in a position to decisively alter the resulting image . Thus photography was removed from the context of creative image production, optical illusion and showmanship, and established instead as a technical and objective instrument for registering images.


The daguerrotype as uncorruptible witness


The extent to which even early photography was accepted as a wholly convincing technique operating according to strictly physical laws is made clear by a report appearing in several daily papers in November 1839, i.e., only a few months after the French government's acquisition of the patent. It told how a daguerreotype had appeared "as a witness in a divorce case [...], a husband had photographed his wife without her knowledge at a clandestine rendez-vous" . With this, the daguerrotype rose to the level of evidence affecting court cases, and allowd itself to be used scientifically to indicate the guilt or innocence of the accused. The increased bureaucratisation and expansion of institutions for public order that took place in all industrial nations in the early 19th century led to a number of new uses for a medium promising such "singular dependability" . Coupled with new techniques for approvals, protocols and archives, photography let itself be used as an apparently neutral method of scientific discovery, but also as a powerful means of control: it functioned as a means of recognition. "The 19th century", as Wolfgang Kemp notes, "was the heyday of the paradigm of traces, as it has recently been called, or, in other words, the search for clues. Conan Doyle and Edgar Allan Poe's detectives, who train their combinatory skills on lifeless details; the doctor Morelli, who distinguishes great painters by the way they paint earlobes or eyelids; Francis Galton, who found the fingerprint to unmistakably identify a person - these were all protagonists in the great search for clues. Photography, in the way it was described by Sherlock Holmes, as something that knows no distinctions, provided the 19th century with the model for recording a state of affairs.


Aiding police enquiries


In the mid-neneteenth century, as Francis Galton, Henry Faulds and William J. Herschel did research on dactyloscopy, ballistics experts first investigated entry trajectories and gun barrel prints, morticians undertook new incisions and toxicologists first began analysing stomach contents, so too did photography emerge as an instrument of police work. Used first as a means of documentation in Brussel's prisons, the 'rogues' galleries' or 'mug shot' albums were perfected in France. As early as 1841, a Munich daily paper wrote: "The police in Paris now make daguerreotypes of the faces of all criminals they encounter, and add them to their files. If, after a criminal has been released, he is suspected of committing a new crime, his portrait is shown to all police agents, who soon locate their suspect" .


Alphonse Bertillon, head of the search agency in Paris since 1882, developed a considerably more efficient system for identifying criminals. He took two photographs of each person arrested, one from the front, the other in profile. These portraits, pasted on files and supplemented with anthropometric data, the name and birth details of the photographed person, represented the foundation of a well-functioning archive with which a large number of people could be easily catalogued and identified. It is easy to quess where Bertillon's inspiration came from. Firstly, he made use of identity files already employed by the police before the invention of photography (in which stood the delinquent's name and comments on his stature). The anthropometric 'signalement' and the double perspective by which Bertillon removed the subjectivity of the describing agent are, however, founded on an anthropological method, likewise introduced in the mid-nineteenth century, namely the 'dissection' of human beings into compilable data .


Man as a set of data


In the belief that the human body could be defined in numerical quantities, anthropologists in the course of their travels took measurements of so-called 'savages', designed hair-colour charts, or charts to determine the pigmentation of skin, hair and eyes. Photography, legitimised as a scientific instrument, proved singularly suitable for the transposition of people into scientifically analysable data. The 'method of analysis' was simple: taken out of his environmental context, robbed of his family, language, clothing and decoration, the 'savage' was forced into a position by a neck support and photographed frontally. In order to make later use of this 'living material' for statistical purposes, ethnologists pressed measuring instruments into their hands so as to ease the evaluation of scale during later analysis; a photographed ruler - like a colour control stripe today - served as an image-internal potential corrective. While initially the photo was simply added to the existing numerical data, soon the relationship was reversed: by the end of the nineteenth century portrait photos had priority, and such details as name, tribe, sex, size, colour of skin, hair and eyes, were added schematically. In addition, portable photography made the ethnologist's work easier: sitting at home at his desk, he could have visual material gathered by travelling photographers delivered to him for evaluation.


The potential criminal


Alphonse Bertillon recognized the advantages of this method for catching criminals, and constructed special apparatus that perfectly fulfilled the requirements of police bureaucracy. The arrested prisoner had to sit on a rotating stool, which also functioned as an exact instrument of measurement; a camera developed specially by Bertillon always took photos from the same distance, which were developed in an unvarying format and, once numbered, could be archived. Only the isolation of the individual and the consistency of the conditions of perception allowed the 'typical' characteristics of the subject to be revealed. "The forced client, who is led in front of the lens, is not allowed to express any preferences regarding the picture, thus removing the greatest difficulty", as Bertillon recommends in his book, published in 1890, La photographie judiciare. Not only the photographic methods of anthropology, but also the colonial perspective was taken up. The photographer - made superior through his technical knowledge alone - degraded the person being photographed to an object of research and registration at his disposal. As master of the picture-producing apparatus, he transformed everyone into an object just by pointing the lens at them. The camera was used to define all that was foreign, criminal, or deviant.


True to the motto that 'a picture paints a thousand words', in 1842 the photographer F.A.W. Nette suggested that the universally understandable photograph be introduced as a means of identification throughout the world. This has become the case in most countries . While, in Bertillon's lifetime, prisoners were photographed involuntarily, nowadays citizens are generally obliged to hand portrait photographs of themselves in to the appropriate passport authorities , for the very reason that the search for criminals is limited largely to the establishing of similarity between a person and their photograph. Photography thus provides a picture which helps to make identity objectively 'measurable': it gives instant information on race, class and sex. While very strict requirements were imposed on the format of the first passport photos - the face had to be entirely visible from the peak of the forehead to the tip of the chin, the ears were not to be covered, the background should be lighter than the face - such regulations have been made superfluous by advances in computer technology, as a digital system can easily compare huge amounts of data. While the introduction of involuntary photography in the nineteenth century was closely bound to proven criminal status, the so-called 'observation sweep' of modern times allows the police to film any number of demonstrators on the streets, in order to have their data on record for the potential investigation of a later case. The results are - in accordance with the successful legitimation strategy of photography's early days - entirely trustworthy, for "the particular value of police photography lies in its clear, easily understandable and fully objective form" . The passport photo thus throws light upon an aspect that might otherwise be forgotten in the course of photography's stylisation as an artistic visual medium, namely that its 150-year long history can be interpreted as a discourse on state control, as a history of control over the human body.