A story about how Alphonse Bertillon, a groundbreaking criminologist, turned everyone into a voyeur.
At the end of the 19th century, the Paris police officer, Alphonse Bertillon, developed a new crime scene photography system, inviting detectives, jurors and newspaper readers to look at scenes of violence and private interiors that had never been so frankly revealed before.
Earlier, detective work relied only on testimony from the first person, and not on circumstantial evidence. The crime scenes were recorded in the form of sketches and notes — by any means, the police could manage, with the materials they had, without any standards or schemes.
The camera, which occasionally used to shoot portraits of alleged criminals from the mid-1800s, was to open a new era of objectivity in criminology in the new Bertillon system. Photos of Bertillon went beyond the objective images. They depicted people whose lives ended in violence and pain, their drama, which was not only part of the aesthetic and cultural changes of the time, but also a means of achieving justice. These photographs were intended not only for investigators, but they also got into the newspapers, making private murders shockingly public.
To photograph the defendants, Bertillon insisted on two poses - full face and profile and developed a scientific approach to using the camera after a crime. His camera was calibrated so that, after receiving the photo, the detectives could recreate the proportions of the crime scene. It was always located at a distance of 1.65 meters from the floor with an average decrease of one-fifteenth and a focal length of 10 centimeters. The victims were photographed from above, obliging Bertillon to set his tripod and camera close to a body.
The police administrations enthusiastically adopted the Bertillon system, which helped them convict serial criminals at a significantly higher rate. Arthur Conan Doyle was a fan of the idea of Bertillon. In the Baskervilles Dog, a character calls Sherlock Holmes "the second-largest expert in Europe," after Bertillon.
Lela Greybill, an art historian from the University of Utah, first saw photos of Bertillon's crime scenes in the Paris art gallery. “That was really something,” she says, “to see these carefully calibrated pictures taken by the police and publicly posted”.
Looking at them, she remembered the artistic images of that era, in particular the painting by Edgar Degas, today called the “Interior” (formerly known as “Rape”). In the picture, a half-dressed woman languidly and melanchocally poses in a cluttered bedroom without windows, while the man stands blocking the door and looks at her with the hands in his pockets. Everything, from decorative wallpaper to semi-nude body is terribly close to the typical composition of Bertillon. The viewer finds himself in the position of interrupting something intimate and ominous.
Bertillon and Degas were contemporaries. Although there is no evidence that they had met, the curator of Orsay Museum in Paris said that the "Interior" of Degas gives out "the scientific view of the assistant Bertillon on the crime scene."
In his article “Judicial view and public opinion: the system of photography of Bertillon of crime scenes,” Greybill says that the classification of photographs of crime scenes as a form of evidence puts it in the field of empirical science.
However, Bertillon saw it differently. “Instead, he suggested that the photographs of the crime scenes were intended for the courtroom and jury,” she writes. "They were not a means of objective proof, but rather an emotional catalyst for persuasion and even revenge."
Bertillon once wrote that when jurors view horrible images of murder scenes, “there is not a single person who ... would not feel an awakened sense of reprisal, which our code calls public revenge” (by law, women could not enter to the French jury until 1944).
In 1904, violence as a spectacle in the name of law and order was not new to Parisians. From March to May 1871, a civil uprising paved the way for the Commune, a short-lived radical socialist government in Paris. Thanks to the rapid and cruel use of force the national government regained control. “There were mass executions all over the city,” says Greybill. "The Paris Commune and its consequences received wide photographic coverage." Although it was meant mainly for journalistic purposes than for the disclosure of specific crimes, all this created a precedent for photographs of Bertilion’s crime scenes.
Police cases more and more turned into savory reports in the media. In 1881, press censorship was abolished in France, and the number of reported crimes began to grow steadily. The increasing presence of the camera in the work of the police not only recorded the victims of the killings, but also revealed the intimate atmosphere of their homes.
In general, in the artistic French representations of that time, as a rule, there were pictures of courtesans in the bedrooms, such as, for example, “Olympia” by Manet. In the picture, the disheveled bed is a pedestal for a naked woman with a defiant look, who is receiving the flowers. When the public suddenly gained access to photographs of crime scenes in the morning papers, it also found herself in the position of voyeurs.
It was assumed that the photograph would be more accurate than sketches, more infallible than the notes of a detective, less vulnerable to sensations than the impressions of a reporter.
The legacy of Bertillon came closely into our lives. In everyday life, the hand of Bertillon is there whenever law enforcement agencies collect photographs and scan identity documents. We still rely on photographs to enliven distant current events and crime scenes.
Then and now, photographers decide how their photo objects are posed, lit and cropped, and each decision changes the perception of the image of the flow of life in the public eye. Even when the camera witnesses what has happened, it generates as many imaginary reconstructions, interpretations, and emotions as there are individual viewers.
In the words of Bertillon: “You can only see what you are watching, and only watch what is already in your mind.”