Police Pictures

The Photograph as Evidence

May 21 - July 18 1998

Police Pictures: The Photograph as Evidence

Criminal Files

In the 1930s, Franklin D. Roosevelt gave J. Edgar Hoover unprecedented powers to fight the kidnappings, killings, crime bosses, and criminals that flourished at that time. Hoover countered the magnetism of such crime figures as “Pretty Boy” Floyd, Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow, John Dillinger, “Machine Gun” Kelly, and “Baby Face” Nelson with the sometimes graphic photographic images that the FBI used as evidence in court or provided to the press. The wide dissemination of such images was of great propaganda value to the government in its struggles with criminals.

By the mid-1940s, Hoover turned his attention to political radicalism, the incursion of the Left, and the threat of the cold war. FBI photographs of this period focus on suspected informers, spies, and any others deemed to be interested in the destruction of the American way of life.

With the twenty-first century almost upon us, the role of science in criminological investigations has never been more manifest. Evidence pictures are now made using a blinding array of technologies to capture minute and often unseen cluesa shoe print or the residue of a body once wrapped in a sack. The chance existence of latent fingerprints on a murder victim’s palm is examined through chemical or microscopic analysis. The turn-of-the-century triumph of fingerprinting over Bertillon’s anthropometric measurement system as the crucial method of determining unique physical characteristics has now given way to routine investigations into the genetic material that differentiates one human being from another.

Surveillance & Identity

Surveillance was once restricted to wartime reconnaissance photography (such as Harold Edgerton’s pictures made in preparation for D-Day), or to tailing suspected spies during the cold war, or recording antiwar demonstrators in the 1960s and 1970s. Now, surveillance cameras proliferate everywhere, from national borders to banks, from apartment-building lobbies to street-corner traffic lights. The surveillance cameras that once were used primarily to identify the perpetrator in the act of a crime or to survey the potential “criminal” watch us as well.

Identification photographs are on our driver’s licenses, our passports, and are often added to our bank cards to prevent misuse by an unauthorized signer. The early twentieth-century portraits of Peruvian miners, the identification pictures of Algerian women, and the photographs of Cambodians held by the Khmer Rouge were also made ostensibly for reasons of identification. But, as in these latter cases, it is not always evident at the moment a picture is taken what purpose it may ultimately be made to serve.

Social Perspectives on the Criminal

Jacob Riis was a social reformer and newspaper reporter who used photography to assist in the description of New York City slum conditions in his 1890 book How the Other Half Lives. He was pivotal in changing the perception of the poor as idle, ignorant, and undeserving. The advent of the magnesium flash in 1887 enabled Riis to take photographs that brought an immediacy to his tales of the living conditions of the urban poor, although his subjects were often asleep, drunk, or too preoccupied or frightened to object to the photography. Riis presented his work directly to the public in lantern-slide shows, confronting his curious audiences with a world it could no longer ignore.

Tabloid newspapers also theatricalized the common poor and made the gangster vivid. Arthur Fellig, a.k.a. Weegee, was the most famous twentieth-century crime photographer and his dramatic pictures of the mob matched the blackness of the headlines. Not a social reformer, but rather a keen and wry observer of street life, Weegee made pictures of crime scenes and the characters that populated them in 1930s and 1940s New York City. These images evoke not only an event itself, but the moments surrounding its occurrence, and often have brief enigmatic captions that heighten the drama of the captured instant.

MugShots and Evidence

Alphonse Bertillon standardized the mug shot and the evidence picture and developed what he called photographie métrique (metric photography). Bertillon intended this system to enable its user to precisely reconstruct the dimension of a particular space and the placement of objects in it, or to measure the object represented. Such pictures documented a crime sceneand the potential clues in itprior to its being disturbed in any way. Bertillon used special mats printed with cadres métriques (metric frames) which were mounted along the sides of these photographs. Included among these photographies métriques are those Bertillon called photographies stéréometriques (stereometric photographs), which pictured front and side views of a particular object.

By 1854, efforts were underway in police departments throughout the United States to create local archives of criminal images. These included daguerreotype portraits of criminals and “rogues’ galleries,” which usually comprised cartes-de-visite placed in racks or assembled into albums. Volumes of mug shots were compiled by local police agencies as well as by private detective organizations such as the Pinkerton National Detective Agency. Volumes containing records of aliens, for instance the itinerant Chinese population, were probably used for purposes of immigration control. From the 1880s on, identifying details and photographs were commonly featured in the “wanted” posters that were distributed widely to apprehend criminals.

Policemen themselves began to include photographs in albums either for private record, as in the case of Jesse Brown Cook’s scrapbooks, or to publicize police activity, as in Thomas Byrnes’ Professional Criminals of America (1886). Byrnes’ book reproduced photographs of mostly “respectable” looking criminals with accompanying comments. Byrnes claimed that, contrary to popular opinion, criminals did not necessarily convey by their physical appearance the nature of their activities.

Political and Social Outcasts

In the nineteenth century, as today, social outcasts and those whose political beliefs made them criminals were subjects of both fear and fascination for the public at large. In various hands and at different times, photographs of such individuals functioned as evidence, propaganda, and identification of differences from the norm.

The small, card-mounted photographs taken by Louis H. Heller of the defeated leaders of the Modoc Indian War of 1872-73 were sold in the San Francisco gallery owned by photographer Carleton Watkins and depicted an ambiguous victory over the so-called “savages.” Pictures of the dead Parisian Communards of 187071 were made to satisfy the government that the Communards had opposed. Photographs depicting the “barbarity” of Asian people especially the “exotic” customs of beheadings and physical torture encouraged the belief that the European powers were morally superior to their colonial subjects.

Early twentieth-century intellectuals romanticized the social outcast as belonging to a special class or race. Photographs of these outsiders were prized and published in the popular “police” magazines. Eugène Atget, whom the Surrealists embraced as a “naïve” artist, and whose ambiguous photographs of deserted areas in Paris were said to resemble crime-scene pictures, was hired to photograph prostitutes. The novelist and poet Pierre Mac Orlan included some of these pictures in his copy of Cesare Lombroso’s 1896 publication, La Femme criminelle e la prostituée (The Criminal Woman and the Prostitute).

Race, Heredity, and the Criminal

The history of photography in the service of science is also the history of the way in which photographs have sometimes been manipulated to prove a variety of scientific and quasi-scientific claims. Duchenne de Boulogne’s photographs of patients receiving electric shocks were offered as evidence that individuality played little part in the expression of emotion and, by extension, behavior. The naturalist Louis Agassiz collected daguerreotypes to further his study of racial differences and the revelatory nature of external distinguishing featuresand to bolster his belief that the white European male was a superior species. The Italian anthropologist Cesare Lombroso subscribed to a theory that viewed the criminal as an example of reversion to a primitive type and illustrated his discussions with photographs of what he considered to be such types: epileptics and murderers, as well as tattooed criminals. Sir Francis Galton’s composite portraiture, based on merging physical characteristics of groups of individuals into a single picture, was proffered as a tool to visualize such “deviants” as the insane and the criminal.

Such conjectures were largely ignored by those involved in apprehending the criminal as they offered little in the way of practical assistance to the police. In 1872, however, the French police adopted an anthropometric system devised by Alphonse Bertillon, whose portraits parlés (speaking likenesses) delineated individual rather than general characteristics of a criminal’s anatomy. Developed to assist in the apprehension of recurrent criminals, the system was based on a series of measurements Bertillon considered unique to each body and included descriptions of characteristic markings accompanied by photographs. By 1893, his system had been widely adopted by police departments in both Europe and the United States and contributed to a standardization of police methods.

The American Outlaw

The outlaws who roamed the “Wild West” were principal characters in the imagination of nineteenth-century Americans. Popular myths of such personalities were depicted in cheap, sensational serials and were the highly prized subjects of photographers. Photographs of the infamous Jesse James depicted a charismatic outcast, seemingly beyond the reach of the law, while Solomon Butcher’s “vignettes” portrayed colorful vigilante cowboys and settlers.

One of the earliest and most extensive series of pictures of political outlaws produced in the United States was made by Alexander Gardner, a Washington, D.C. based portrait photographer. Gardner was hired by the Secret Service in 1865 to document the aftermath of the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln. He made full-length, profile, and full-face portraits of each of the Lincoln conspirators, a method that would become standard practice for law-enforcement photographers. Gardner attempted to capitalize on his retention of the majority of his negatives by selling cartes-de-visite (small pictures attached to calling-card-sized boards) and large-format prints of the story. However, the public, shattered by the Civil War, was more interested in the escapades of the “romantic” western outlaws.

Starts Thursday, May 21, 1998
Ends Saturday, Jul 18, 1998


Exhibition Types: American Art