“Identifying Identity? Identification and Typification in 19th Century and the Formation of 21st Century Identities.”
Presentation at the conference “W(h)ither Identity – Positioning the Self and Transforming the Social” at the GCSC, Giessen University.
19th century endeavours of identification and typification, among others by the French criminologist Alphonse Bertillon, have provided the basis for today’s intricate and interconnected collections of data on individuals – their body and face. It is difficult to overestimate the importance of their work widely influenced today’s means and practices of biometric identification as well as contemporary identity formation.
Taking portraits from the early days of photography as a starting point, the paper will examine the genesis of the practices and modes of visual representation and provide an outlook on contemporary digital archives of personal visual data. Here the ambivalent role of the portrait becomes obvious: on the one hand as a sign of voluntary and confident self-representation of for the first time large parts of society in the 19th century, on the other hand as a means of forced external ascription in practices of identification through the mug shot in police work. This technique of recording the criminal face is eventually extended to cover the whole population in IDs and administrative archives. These processes of visual development have gained new momentum through techniques of computerisation and automation in biometric identification that have just in recent years changed the pictures on our passports from smiling half-lateral portrait to frontal expressionless mug shot.