Alphonse Bertillon was a French police officer and biometrics researcher who was responsible for standardizing the modern mug shot. (Fun fact: the profile shot was included because Bertillon thought our ear shape might become a unique identifier, in the days before fingerprinting). This cute mug shot features his two-year old son François Bertillon, a hardened criminal who was caught nibbling all the pears from a basket on 17 October 1893.
This mug shot is adorable, but it is also a pretty remarkable as a historical artifact: it is one of those rare objects that documents a part of history while also giving us a glimpse into the life and personality of its creator.
Like most historical innovators, Alphonse Bertillon is usually only remembered in the context of his life’s work, just a name attached to a set of achievements. Capturing a lighthearted moment with his son, this photograph brings Bertillon to life as a real man and a father. I can’t help but look at this photograph and imagine the exchange between naughty son and bemused father, perhaps as he worked on inventing mug shots in his workshop one afternoon.
Mug shots have become one of the most iconic and recognizable photographic forms in the twentieth-century; this image is so special because it infuses this relic of visual culture with the personal history of its inventor.
// Image: Alphonse Bertillon, 17 October 1893. Silver albumen print, 8.1 x 12.7 cm. Via the Museum of Modern Art, New York.