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Dead medium: Bertillonage
From: (Damien Peter Sutton)
Source(s): Alan Sekula, 'The Body and the Archive' in *The Contest of Meaning,* edited by Richard Bolton, MIT, 1989. Also *Alphonse Bertillon: Father of Scientific Detection,* by Henry Rhodes, London, Abelard-Schuman, 1956.

The "Signalectic Process of Criminal Classification," or "Bertillonage," was an early form of police classification, using photography, anthropometrics, and elaborate card catalogs.

Bertillonage was developed by Alphonse Bertillon, the Director of the Identification Bureau of the Paris Prefecture of Police, in response to the problems of controlling and using the Bureau's chaotic library of criminal photographs. The aim was twofold: to establish a usable system of unique identification for criminals, and to establish a statistical system for discovering the basic criminal 'biotype.'

Alphonse Bertillon was the son of the anthropometrist Adolphe Louis Bertillon. Anthropometrics was the science of taxonomy of the human race, which relied on a statistical approach, using abstract measurements. Anthropometrics had been used extensively in the colonies by most European powers with colonial interests.

Bertillon surmised that if a record could be made of eleven special measurements of the human body,then that record, when accompanied with a photograph, would establish unique, recordable, processable ID characteristics for every member of the human race.

The Bertillonage measurements were:

 1. Height 2. Stretch: Length of body from left shoulder to right middle finger when arm is raised. 3. 'Bust': Length of torso from head to seat, taken when seated. 4. Length of head: Crown to forehead. 5. Width of head: Temple to temple. 6. Length of right ear. 7. Length of left foot. 8. Length of left middle finger. 9. Length of left cubit: Elbow to tip of middle finger. 10. Width of cheeks. (presumably cheekbone) 11. Length of left little finger. 
These would be entered onto a data card, alongside the picture of the criminal, with additional information such as hair, beard, eye color etc. This 'Bertillon card' would then be filed. Bertillon eventually accumulated a filing system of over 100,000 cards, and successfully exported the system abroad. The San Diego Police Department used the system circa 1913.

Eventually Bertillon began taking measurements from specialized photographs. Collections also exist of his accumulated pictures of ears, facial profiles, etc.

Bertillon's project was part of a broad movement of taxonomic work based on the so-called "biotype," which attempted to use statistical analysis of police records to scientifically identify the "criminal type." Eugenics movements at the time promoted the segregation of these inferior types, so that they might not breed.

Bertillon's system lasted approximately 20 years. It was abandoned, not merely because of ethical problems, but because the archive itself became unwieldy. The Bertillonage apparatus included an overhead camera, under which the subject would recline in the two poses for the measurement of stretch and height; plus a camera set up in precisely measured distance from the subject, for measurement of the facial dimensions, ear, torso, and arm/hand. All these images were photographed against a gradated screen, so that the photographs could act as measurement records.

Bertillon's equipment was standard photographic equipment with minor modifications. But, as Sekula points out: "The central artifact of this system was not the camera but the filing cabinet." The filing cabinets of the period lacked the swift capacity and power of modern ones.

Damian Peter Sutton (

(((bruces remarks: if you are in the San Francisco area this Wednesday October 14th, come see me speak at the New Media Minds series at 7PM, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. 701 Mission Street. I look forward to meeting members of the list and discussing future directions for Dead Media Project.)))