A short history of mug shots, from Leon Trotsky to Johnny Cash.

Collected images.
Oct. 21 2010 7:14 AM

A Short History of Mug Shots

From Leon Trotsky to Johnny Cash to Jane Fonda.

Click to view a slide show.

The first known photograph of a person is said to have been taken by Louis Daguerre in 1838 or 1839. The widespread use of photography to record the faces of criminals, however, didn't catch on until the 1880s. According to the Encyclopedia of Nineteenth-Century Photography, the legal system's delay in making full use of the new technology was due in part to the high cost and complexity of photography at the time and in part to the unresolved question of whether an image could actually function as evidence in a court of law.

Enter Alphonse Bertillon. Bertillon, a clerk in the Prefecture of Police of Paris in the late 1870s, invented the mug shot as we know it: a pair of photographs taken with a standardized pose and angle (one front shot, one profile shot) under standardized lighting conditions. The photographs were to be attached to an identification card that would also record anthropometric data—length of left pinky finger, for example—as well as descriptions of eye color, hair color, skin color, build, and identifying marks.

The success of Bertillon's system in France secured him a job as chief of the newly established Department of Judicial Identity. His many books describing his methods, as well as exhibitions like the 1893 World Columbian Exhibition in Chicago, helped spread the use of the Bertillon system around the world. Eventually Bertillon's method of recording anthropometric data lost out to the more reliable process of finger printing. But his contribution to the standardization of forensic photography endures.

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The mug shots presented in this slide show are taken from Raynal Pellicer's Mugshots: An Archive of the Famous, Infamous, and Most Wanted, which will be published in paperback on Nov. 1. The book assembles highlights from the past 100 years of mug shooting and illustrates the legacy of the Bertillon system. The photos are also fascinating portraits of well-known historical figures under emotional duress. The diversity of their expressions—Charles Ponzi seems eerily calm; Hermann Goering, highly annoyed; Leon Trotsky, surprisingly bemused—speaks to the differing reactions to the charged moment when a person goes from citizen to suspect.—Julia Felsenthal

Click here for a slide show of mug shots of Benito Mussolini, Clyde Barrow, Jane Fonda, and others.

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