Imagine that everyone browsing your local newspaper’s website found a photo showing the worst day of your life. That’s what happens to many people whose mug shots are shared in police press releases and end up online. News sites struggle with whether to publish mug shots and when to remove them from their archives. But this is not a new issue. As visual art scholar Shawn Michelle Smith writes, since the mid-nineteenth century, police departments have been sharing photographs of the people they arrest as a way to engage the public in policing.
Smith writes that police started using photography almost immediately after the daguerreotype was introduced to the public in 1839. Parisian police quickly adopted the new technology to try to catch serial offenders.
US police departments began taking photographs of people they arrested in the 1850s. They framed the black-and-white prints, and sometimes tinted the cheeks pink. They hung these images in rogues’ galleries to entertain the public and instruct people on watching out for shady characters.
Police also sometimes printed the same kinds of images in books, like the 1886 volume Professional Criminals of America, published by Thomas Byrnes, chief detective of the New York City Police Department. The 204 “rogues” included in the book included shoplifters and pickpockets.
“Professional Criminals of America subtly instructs readers to study the faces of the people it records, as well as those they encounter in daily life, encouraging viewers to be on the lookout for infamous repeat offenders,” Smith writes.
As paper prints of photographs became cheaper to make, the use of mug shots expanded in the United States and Europe. In the 1880s, Alphonse Bertillon, an anthropologist who served as chief of France’s Judicial Identification Services, developed the standardized mug shot. He created the now familiar format of two tight shots of the subject’s head and upper body, one head-on and the other in profile. He also added additional information, including the breadth of the person’s arm span, the length of their foot and the size of their ear.
Bertillon called the result a portrait parlé—a speaking image including both the photograph and text describing the person’s hair and eye color, scars, profession, relatives, and address. With so much data, he argued, police would be able to recognize a repeat offender even if they disguised their identity.
Smith writes that this method spread widely in the US. Around 1908, the New York City Police Department created a set of photographs intended to demonstrate how to create the portraits. Some instructional images depicted several officers wrestling a suspect into submission, forcing him to hold still for the camera.
The police who created the photographs apparently recognized that many people would very much prefer not having their image publicly connected to the label “criminal.” The same is true today.