Archives de la Préfecture de Police de Paris

Research visit to the „Archives de la Préfecture de Police de Paris“

During my visit to the „Archives de la Préfecture de Police de Paris“, in February and March 2014, I am examining the material related to the work of Alphonse Bertillon, who is described as a protagonist of scientific police work and the founder of modern identification. Drawing on insights from social statistics and studies in human physiognomy, he developed a system of identification based on anthropometric measurement, additional descriptions and photography. I am here to look at his utilisation and development of the then still young medium of visual recording. In relation to my PhD. Project, especially his practice of depicting the face in the systematic frontal and lateral judiciary portrait and the technique of dissecting and re-composition of the human face in the “portrait parlé”, the verbal portrait, is relevant. Furthermore I am here to explore the connections between the modes of depiction in Francis Galton’s composite portrait and the recording and decoding of the criminal face as proposed by Alphonse Bertillon.

I am pushed to daylight by an escalator at the Station “Hoche” in the north-western outskirts of Paris. An overpowering smell of food and rotten fruit is in the air. On my way to the archive, I walk through a slightly run-down neighborhood, past an outdoor marked, a neglected shopping centre, take away restaurants. The archive has just recently moved here from the city centre, where it was housed in the buildings of the Police Prefecture. The new location is set back behind a green fence, only a small sign indicating that this seemingly small structure contains this huge historical archive. After the registration process, in which I am provided with an identification card, I am sent through a back door to meet the responsible persons for the photographic archive. A middle aged woman and an older man show me five folders full of paper photographs and reproductions, filed under the name Alphonse Bertillon and the headers “Identification Judiciaire” and “Affaires Criminelles”. While the latter include material on individual criminal cases, the former are those I am looking for.

The paper prints of different sizes are kept in translucent foil. Some are of a clearly documentary nature, others are more private portraits of Bertillon and his family, however even most of these are taken as mug shots. Some photos are clearly produced for judiciary purposes and jet others find themselves in the publications of Bertillon. Many of the images of the studio and its equipment and instruments are depicted in the form of metric photography, a technique Bertillon invented for the exact documentation of crime scenes. The processes and instruments of the Bertillonage are examined with the same measuring and dissecting gaze as the locales of crimes. The grid of metric photography is crisscrossing the photographic studio – meeting the markings and rails along which the equipment is moved – as if to verify its construction and neutral gaze.

The documentary photographs offer a glimpse into the identification apparatus as it was operating by the turn of the last century. The images show the photographic studio, the equipment and locations, how the anthropometric measurements of the Bertillonage were taken, as well as the archive where the identification documents, or so called signaletic cards, were filed. The photographs reveal the immense size of the archive during Bertillon’s time when it was located in the upper story of the historical building of the Police Prefecture on the “Ile de la Cité”. Endless rows of shelves are lined up in two levels, using the entire space of the high ceiling of the attic floor. The faces of clerks, working the identification machine, poke out from the corridors. This is what the first central archive of individual identification looked like. By the death of its founder in 1914, entries on several hundred thousand individuals, who were registered by the police and prison apparatus in France, were kept here.

A view into the measuring room shows the Bertillonage anthropometric studio in operation, a “séance de mensuration”, officers working on the ‘recording’ of two subjects, while another suspect is waiting on a bench. Their each and every movement is supervised by other officers seated at elevated tables; while they note the results of determined by their colleagues. The individual steps in the anthropometric measurements are depicted in other images. For each of the nine measures a full-body picture is accompanied by a close up that presents the exact handling of the instruments. The pictures are clearly taken for educational purposes and were models for engravings that appeared in Bertillon’s publications on his technique of identification. The anthropometric instruments figure prominently in the photographs; they appear on the walls, they are depicted in use, as well as separately in a case specifically designed to hold the equipment. An integral part of this suitcase are instructions and charts that are provided as aid and reference in the process of recording individual physical characteristics along the minutely prescribed notation proposed by Bertillon. The measuring suitcases were used at a later stage by mobile police units who were assigned to measure and document the ‘nomad population’. In these passports the Bertillonage lived on far into the 20th century. This is not only pointed out by academics, but also taken up by a French artist whose work is currently exhibited in the photographic Museum “Jeu de Paume” in Paris.

I am drawn into a conversation with an employee of the archive who is interested in the material I am researching. As an answer to my question where the cards and negatives are kept now, he leads me through a back-door, along endless lines of shelves into other rooms, equally packed – the storage rooms are huge. Finally he shows me a small cabinet, where glass-negatives are kept. Only very few seem to have survived, compared to the several hundred thousand that must have existed in early 20th century. When another employee discovers our presence, we are ushered out of the “inner sanctum” – only employees are allowed here.

Apart from the work in the archive I had the chance to meet with Stephanie Solinas, an artist whose work circles around questions of identity and identity construction, mainly in relation to the medium of photography. For one of her works she has compiled a 3-D mask from the frontal and lateral portraits of Alphonse Bertillon, preserved in the same collection I was working on. The mask is a composition of another kind; it tries to recreate a 3-dimensional shape from the 2-dimensional artefacts. The work is presented as a book where every page contains a part of the face that can be glued together by the ‘readers’. Here, much like in the technique of the “portrait parlé”, the face is dissected and reassembled, composed from archive material. Apart from allowing a new glance into the face of Bertillon, she interrogates the underlying backgrounds and claims of the endeavour of identification – of closing the gap between a document and an actual person. She however stresses the fundamental difference of this confident self-portrait to the mug shots taken of criminals in the Judiciary Service of the Police Prefecture.