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Articles

The man who revolutionised criminology with his crime scene photography

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david perez

24 Noviembre 2016 22:19

When Alphonse Bertillon started work in the Criminal Records Office of the Paris Police Department, what he saw shocked him. Total chaos reigned in the building, with piles of crime scene evidence gathering dust in all corners of the office waiting for someone to come along and attempt to solve a case.

Mug shots of convicts had been taken by careless photographers with poor equipment. Thanks to this lax attitude many criminals had even been getting away with shaking their heads as the photograph was being taken, thus blurring the images and rendering their portraits unrecognisable.

Bertillon was a neat and meticulous fellow, and immediately recognised that something had to be done. He decided to impose some order on the chaos.

His first step was to simplify the filing structure and standardise the forensic analysis documentation. He also recommended the use of chemical compounds to preserve crime scene footprints. 

Bertillon innovated crime scene photography and invented his own system for filing criminals based on physical characteristics. And – as if that wasn’t enough – he also created the modern police file.

Until then, police investigations of suspects were limited to witness statements which were frequently confused and inaccurate. Bertillon decided to employ photography as a more effective weapon with which to fight crime.

He invented an anthropometric theory, based on the systematic measurement of physical characteristics of detainees, with the aim of obtaining a detailed description of criminals. 

In a single year – 1884 – Bertillon managed to identify 241 delinquents, causing anthropometry to become famous. It was quickly adopted by a number of different countries. However, his revolutionary method was later to be abandoned when it was realised that it was possible for two people to have the same measurements. Eventually it ceased to be used and began to be considered a pseudoscience.

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Some of Bertillon’s revolutionary techniques, however, did manage to withstand the passing of time. One of these was the practice of using a tall tripod in crime scene photography in order to position the camera and flash above the victim.

The higher perspective made it possible to obtain a much clearer vision of the path that the body had taken before dying. Bertillon also developed metric photography as a method of reconstructing precisely the dimensions of a place and its objects.

Bertillon forbade people from disturbing the crime scene and he introduced pieces of cardboard with printed measurements – known as the photomacrographic scale – to help identify the size and position of each object.

Armed with this revolutionary method, Bertillon took some bleak, brutal and gruesome photographs. Black and white images that conjure up the grisly crimes that were committed in those rooms.

Why are those cushions tossed and those white sheets stained with blood?

Who killed the girl who doesn’t smile?

What happened behind that door?

Who is the man in the corridor?

What possessed Mrs Frichot to hack her husband to death?

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