“Sit up, straighen up and pull your hair back. Close your mouth and try not smiling.” This is what we’re told today when posing for an ID photo. With the exhibition Fichés ?, the National Archives museum takes a look at the origins of ID photography.
Browsing the multitude of anthropometric files from police archives, one name stands out: Alphonse Bertillon. Named Director of Legal Identity in 1882, Bertillon was one of the first to promote photography as a tool for identification. By taking pictures of criminals, Bertillon hoped to develop a more effective system of identifying repeat offenders. In addition to height and weight of a perpetrator, the criminal files included head-on and profile photographs. Scientific rigor pushed the photographer to document a number of other distinguishing features: eyes, ears, nose, forehead and other parts of the face, which Bertillon gathered to develop a precise morphological vocabulary, almost as if he wanted to establish a criminal typology.
We learn that a nose can be concave, convex, straight and many other things, and that ears are an unlikely and consistent means to identify individuals because they don’t change over time.
The second floor of the exhibition ,looks at the twentieth century. Among the sea of drivers licenses, ID cards and passports, we see Picasso and Adenauer, and the progressive development of ID cards under the influence of the Vichy government ( french government during world war II).
“I came to you, Mr. Holmes, because I recognized that I am myself an unpractical man and because I am suddenly confronted with a most serious and extraordinary problem. Recognizing, as I do, that you are the second highest expert in Europe—”
“Indeed, sir! May I inquire who has the honour to be the first?” asked Holmes with some asperity.
“To the man of precisely scientific mind the work of Monsieur Bertillon must always appeal strongly.
Arthur Conan Doyle, The Hound of the Baskervilles, 1901
Fichés? Photographie et identification du Second Empire aux années 60
Through January 23, 2012
Musée des Archives nationales
Hôtel de Soubise
60, rue des Francs-Bourgeois