Bertillon System

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Classification guideline for facial features in the Bertillon system

“There seem to be entire branches of scholarship today that believe that they have not said anything at all if they have not said the word ‘body’ a hundred times.” –Friedrich Kittler (2010, 148)

Before DNA evidence—and before that, the ubiquitous adoption of fingerprinting—became the dominant mode by which criminals were identified by law enforcement, another form of biometric identification was in widespread use around the world. This was the system of so-called anthropometry, invented at the end of the 19th century by a clerk in the Paris police prefecture, one Alphonse Bertillon. The Bertillon system, also known as Bertillonage, had a major impact on criminology, especially in its native France, around the turn of the century because “Bertillon made it possible to visualize criminality in a ploddingly bureaucratic yet devastatingly effective way” (Cole 2001, 58-59). Bertillon “placed identity and identification at the heart of government policy, introducing a spirit and set of principles that still exist today” (Kaluszynski 2001, 123). Bertillon’s system was a minor sensation in its day, so much so that it prompted a Paris newspaper to declare: “Bertillonage is the greatest and most brilliant invention the nineteenth century has produced in the field of criminology. Thanks to a French genius, errors of identification will soon cease to exist not only in France but also in the entire world. Hence judicial errors based on false identification will likewise disappear. Long live Bertillonage! Long live Bertillon!” (qtd. in Cole 2001, 49-51). The Bertillon system in its un-bastardized form—that is to say, when it was practiced by Bertillon himself and a few close associates—was a resounding success; when, however, the system was exported all around the world, the results were much less promising. Indeed, it seemed as if “the accuracy of anthropometric identification decreased proportionally with the distance from Paris” (Cole 2001, 52). The final death knell for Bertillonage came when in the early years of the 20th century it was swiftly disposed by a more streamlined and reliable form of identification, one that has an ancient origin but that had only begun to be used for criminal identification—mainly in colonial contexts—in the mid-19th century, and one that is still in use today—namely, dactyloscopy, i.e. fingerprinting.

A quick note to readers: those who are sick of the post-Foucauldian emphasis on “the body” that is “fashionable among contemporary scholars”—as Kittler tells us (2010, 148)—may wish to click past this dossier in silence, for thinking about the Bertillon system requires a thorough-going investment in the body as a site of identity/subject formation—a contested site that has serious political ramifications in our current generalized state of biometric exception. As a result, the word “body” will appear somewhat frequently in this dossier.

The Need for Identification

Alphonse Bertillon

The need for an accurate method of identifying criminals became apparent in France in the late 19th century when the country was “plagued by a mounting crisis of recidivism” (Kaluszynski 2001, 123). Martine Kaluszynski describes the response to the crisis:

A series of legislative initiatives were adopted in the attempt to attack the problem, notably the laws of May 27, 1885 (on transportation and restrictions of the rights of settlement) and of March 26, 1891 (on suspended sentences). These and other laws were based on the principle of dividing offenders into two categories, first offenders and recidivists. First offenders were to be rehabilitated through generous policies that would encourage personal reformation and social reintegration. By contrast, recidivists faced the threat of severe punishment, and the incorrigible were to be segregated from the rest of society. (Kaluszynski 2001, 123-24).

Bertillon, working in the Paris police prefecture at this time, was particularly concerned with the problem of recidivism. If the new laws were to be enforced, he believed, an accurate system would need to be in place to be able to differentiate between first-offenders and recidivists. In the past, it was possible to identify repeat offenders by cropping their ears or branding them; however, “[b]randing by hot iron had been abolished by law in 1832, and with it all possibility of such a comprehensively effective system. Thus identification of the individual as such became the key to an effective system of crime control” (Kaluszynski 2001, 124). Bertillon thought his system of anthropometric measurement of the criminal was the answer, and he was uniquely positioned to provide such a solution. Bertillon came from a “family that had multiple connections with the worlds of science, medicine, and anthropology.” For example: “His grandfather, Achille Guillard, an enthusiast for statistics, coined the term demography; his father, the physician Louis Adolphe Bertillon, was a co-founder of the École d’anthropologie; and his elder brother, Jacques Bertillon, also a physician, was the well known author of several publications on statistics and director of statistics for the city of Paris” (Kaluszynski 2001, 124, n.6). The young Alphonse Bertillon had trouble settling on a career—he spent some time in medical school but left after passing the first exam—so his father used his influence to get Alphonse a post in the police prefecture, which he assumed on March 15, 1879 (Kaluszynski 2001, 125). And so it was that “[b]y the end of that winter, he had set himself to discover an objective and infallible means of identifying recidivists. His family background, his own unfinished training as a physician, and his admiration for Italian criminal anthropologists, who used osteometric observations to support their theories, had a cumulative influence on his own research” (ibid.).

A Tripartite System

Bertillon’s system is often associated simply with anthropometry, the scientific study of the measurements and proportions of the human body, but in fact his system consisted of three parts, of which direct measurement of the criminal body was only the first. “His method proceeded in two stages, description (signalement) and classification” (Kaluszynski 2001, 125). Let us look at the three distinct parts of the Bartillonage process in some detail.


How the arm was measured

“Bertillon started from the observations that the human bone structure was more or less absolutely fixed by the age of twenty, and that the skeleton varied tremendously in its dimensions between one person and another. On the basis of these observations, it was possible to establish descriptive data that derived from specific bone measurements” (Kaluszynski 2001, 125). Simon A. Cole describes how the measurement process would have worked in any routine arrest at the time: “A prisoner being Bertillonaged was first subjected to eleven different anthropometric measurements taken with specially designed calipers, gauges, and rulers by one of Bertillon’s rigorously trained clerks, or ‘Bertillon operators.’ Each measurement was a meticulously choreographed set of gestures in which the exact positioning and movement of both bodies—prisoner and operator—were dictated by Bertillon’s precise instructions” (2001, 34). The prisoner would undergo eleven precise measurements, selected by Bertillon because they were the proportions “least likely to be affected by weight change or aging over time (Cole 2001, 37). These “osseus lengths” were: height, head length, head breadth, arm span, sitting height, left middle finger length, left little finger length, left foot length, left forearm, right ear length, and cheek width. Kittler has determined that these “[e]leven measurements alone would already allow for 177,147 different combinations” (Kittler 2010, 141). (Kittler doesn't tell us how he arrived at this precise figure, and its exactitude is highly dubious.)

Martine Kaluszynski notes that, “Anthropometry was premised on a proven principle: all human measurements, of whatever kind, obeyed a natural law of statistical distribution. The choice of features to be measured had to be based on their non-correlation as well as on their fixity and clarity. This represented a noteworthy bid to move away from a model confined to generalizations: here it was the detail, the particular, that mattered” (2001, 126). Certain problems arose, however, with applying anthropometry to women and children, “since their measurements did not conform to the statistical norms” (126). Errors in taking the measurements were also a constant threat to the integrity of the system. “The system was in fact only a means of negative identification that enabled probably but not absolute identifications” (126).

Portrait parlé

The Bertillon cards were meticulously cataloged

Bertillon needed to augment his system with a device for not only proving non-identity through a method of elimination—the raison d’etre of anthropometric bone measurements—but also establishing positive identity. Thus he developed the portrait parlé, the spoken portrait: a rigorous system of verbal description of the physical characteristics of a subject. “Rather than merely providing a black space for physical description, the ‘Bertillon card’ included spaces for descriptions of the prisoner’s eyes, ears, lips, beard, hair color, skin color, ethnicity, forehead, nose, build, chin, general contour of head, hair growth pattern, eyebrows, eyeball and orbit, mouth, physiognomic expression, neck, inclination of shoulders, attitude, general demeanor, voice and language, and habiliments [clothing]” (Cole 2001, 37).

Bertillon would go on to hone his system of physical description into a precise, “scientific” language, “which he called a ‘morphological vocabulary,’ to describe human features in all their variety” (Cole 2001, 37), as well as a system of abbreviations to render that vocabulary in the most efficient form possible. For example, a typical sentence in a portrait parlé might read: cicatrix, recticular, of dimension of one centimeter, oblique external, on middle phalanx of middle finger, left side, posterior face. In Bertillon’s standardized system of “abridged writing,” this sentence could be reduced to:

“cic. r. of 1b ε, ml. 2df. M g.” (Cole 2001, 43).

These abbreviations allowed the Bertillon operator to provided detailed physical descriptions on the limited space of the Bertillon card. “Instead of writing out a description in complete sentences, choosing which features to record, the identification clerk needed only to complete the Bertillon card, which provided dedicated spaces for each aspect of the face and body” (Cole 2001, 43). Bertillon foresaw a situation in which his morphological vocabulary could become a universal language, able to be transmitted via telegraph. Bertillon wrote, “The ideal to be attained would be for it to be made possible for a person operating in another place, when he read a statement of this kind, to reproduce on his own body designs imitating exactly, as to general form, dimension and position, the marks of the individual described” (Bertillon 1896, 55). For Bertillon, the material body was made immaterial; as Matt Matsuda puts it, the criminal body became “an electric body of speed, transmitted telegraphically. This was the body to be read in many cities, provinces, across borders and regions, a body sent and received as transmitted numbers, then transcribed, translated, and reconstructed, a body whose materiality was print, wire, electricity, and transcription” (qtd. in Cole 2001, 48). Our contemporary biopolitical fears—of biometric bureaucrats buying and selling our genetic codes in some future eugenic marketplace (Gattaca), for example—can be traced back to this very moment, a moment in which, as Cole puts it, “Bertillon envisioned nothing less than the complete reduction of human identity to a language of notations which could be organized and accessed at will. . . . Bertillon reduced the body to language and then to code—turning the criminal body into pure information” (Cole 2001, 49).


The Bertillon cards included two photographs, one face-on, one in profile
The precise apparatus of metric photography

The third component of the Bertillonage process was photography. Bertillon did not introduce photography into criminology; indeed, as Martine Kaluszynski explains, photography had been a part of police work for a decade before Bertillon’s system was perfected:

Photography was in use in some sections of the police prefecture in Paris as early as 1872. The photographic department had been established unofficially for the purposes of political research, and together with the printing department comprised the criminal investigation department of the police prefecture. From this time on, all suspects were photographed, but very unsystematically—from various angles and with various degrees of expertise—and the prints accumulated in disorderly piles. They were catalogued by name alone, which meant that they were useless for identifying any malefactor who simply changed his name. Thus the problem was how to match the sixty thousand photographs assembled by the criminal investigation service with any of the hundred individuals arrested in the city every day. (Kaluszynski 2001, 124)

What Bertillon did was standardize the process of criminal photography, and added the essential organizational element that allowed the photographs to be of some use to police officers trying to identify suspects and determine if they were in fact repeat offenders.

Even though Bertillon did incorporate photography into his system, he did not fully embrace the medium as a completely effective tool for criminal identification. As Simon Cole notes, “unlike many of his contemporaries, [Bertillon] was not impressed by the supposed objectivity of the camera” (Cole 2001, 48). In some ways, this is a very contemporary skepticism about the “truth” of photography, one that has become much more prevalent with digital photography and PhotoShop; Bertillon exhibited it avant le lettre. To get around this problem, Bertillon devised a rigorous process of photography he called “descriptive photography” (photographie signalétique), also known as called “Metric photography”: a standardized, mechanized set of rules and procedures that would ensure the most “objective” view possible when photographing an object. Kaluszynski describes the crucial difference between descriptive photography and previous iterations of the medium: “Seen as an objective and impartial document—not a ‘portrait’ in the artistic or usual sense of the term—the photograph was intended to be a perfectly consistent medium of representation whose precise and accurate record of physical traits would serve for all subsequent comparison. Hence the descriptive photograph was taken in rigorously prescribed conditions, including size (one-seventh reduction) and position (full-face, profile), and with improved equipment” (Kaluszynski 2001, 126 n. 9).

When Bertillonage was being exported the process of metric photography was an aspect of the system that was highlighted as being particularly adaptable and useful for police departments around the world. Louis Tomellini, the author of a translated version of Bertillon’s technical manual, describes how metric photography can become integrated into the over-all regime of measurement and quantification:

Until recently professional photographers have been concerned in making artistic photographs, but they have never considered the advantage of having photographs which could give at the same time not only the forms but also the real dimensions of objects and distances, things of considerable interest in judicial and medico-legal practice. Now modern objectives, when properly employed, may become excellent measuring instruments. Metric photography comprises the whole of the methods which make a photograph, taken by the usual processes, capable of being, when desired, measured and even converted into a plan of known scale. (Tomellini 1908, 14).

The representation of “real dimensions of objects and distances” was achieved with an intricate system of angles and grids used to precisely calibrate the scale of the subsequent photographic prints. While the grids used to graduate metric photography made for precise measurements they also point up the fact that the body is now made to be entirely quantifiable. As Tiziana Terranova notes, “There is always something both utopian and dystopian about a grid. Whether it is a city plan, a prison layout or an accountant’s spreadsheet, the grid is a principle of division and order, making possible the counting and location of things” (Terranova 2004, 46). With metric photography, the body is totally knowable, totally locatable, totally naked.

Friedrich Kittler has over-emphasized the role that photography played in Bertillonage; in his account he (over)emphasizes the role played by photography in the system while totally dismissing the “descriptions,” the portrait parlé: “In the age of literary realism, it is self-evident that Bertillon replaced these necessarily imprecise descriptions with photographs” (2010, 141). If Kittler had been more exacting in his research he would have found that it was not “self-evident” at all that Bertillon replaced (spoken) descriptions with photography; as Cole has shown, Bertillon was notably skeptical about the anthropometric potentiality of photography. Kittler does, however, point to a common theme in with regards to metric photography—the interaction between art and surveillance: “the fact that it did not become famous as ‘art’ (in the old European understanding of the term) until or rather precisely after this criminalistic success proves . . . that all talk of photography as art actually serves to conceal its strategic functions” (Kittler 2010, 145). Cole, correctly by all accounts, argues for precisely the opposite hierarchy of Bertillonage components as Kittler: “With the portrait parlé, Bertillon sought to replace the photograph with a systematized language as the medium of police communication and surveillance. . . . Instead of the visual image, Bertillon put his faith in words and numbers” (Cole 2001, 48).

With all three components assembled on one piece of paper—the anthropometric measurements, the detailed physical descriptions, and the metric photographs—the “Bertillon operator would take a newly obtained identification card into the archive, an enormous room full of criminal records indexed according to Bertillon’s system, and look for a card with matching anthropometric values” (Cole 2001, 45). This archive represented the second allowed for the precise filing of biometric information for easy retrieval. The power over biological life was now at fingertips of the police investor in the archive. We can thus see how Bertillonage is part and parcel of Foucault’s conception of biopower. Although Foucault is not referring to Bertillon here, the quotation is all too applicable:

For the first time in history, no doubt, biological existence was reflected in political existence; the fact of living was no longer an inaccessible substrate that only emerged from time to time, amid the randomness of death and its fatality; part of it passed into knowledge’s field of control and power’s sphere of intervention. Power would no longer be dealing with legal subjects over whom the ultimate dominion was death, but with living beings, and the mastery it would be able to exercise over them would have to be applied at the level of life itself; it was the taking charge of life, more than the threat of death, that gave power its access even to the body. (1978, 142-43).

Decline of Bertillonage

Fingerprint killed the Bertillon star

The complexity of the Bertillon system—the very thing that provided it with such accurate and reliable data—also proved to be its downfall: it was simply too cumbersome to replicate with sufficient accuracy. As soon as Bertillon’s procedures began to be disseminated outside of Paris there were problems; as Cole explains:

Learning the system from translated books, far from the exacting presence of Bertillon himself, identification clerks seldom replicated the rigor that characterized operations in Paris. Instead, they skimped on learning the morphological vocabulary, glossed over the precise movements in the measuring process, and contented themselves with sloppily recording a few measurements. Worse, most identification bureaus, too proud to simply adopt Bertillon’s system wholesale, took it upon themselves to modify various aspects of the system. (Cole 2001, 52)

Bertillon anticipated these problems, writing a strongly-worded message in his instruction manual directed towards all those who would consider meddling with his finally tuned methods:

The arrangement of these instruments was the subject of many experiments and numberless improvements before they reached their present shape, which we consider as final. So we reject in advance every modification, every further change, however slight, either in their form or in their manner of using them. That is a great temptation for beginners, to whom numerous new ideas occur, but who are not aware that all these ideas, even those that they believe to be the most original, the most personal, have already been proposed by others, tried and finally rejected for divers reasons. (Bertillon 1896, 19)

Alas, Bertillon’s warnings were not heeded, and the accuracy of anthropometric measurements—and the reputation of the system as a whole—suffered as result.

Even if the integrity of Bertillon’s system could be sustained outside of Paris, it was soon to be overtaken by another form of criminal identification. As Kaluszynski notes, “at the last moment before it seemed likely to dominate the future, anthropometry was to undergo a rude shock. Its success had barely been established and savored when its supremacy began to falter in the face of a new and infallible technique” (2001, 128). Of course, the new technique was fingerprinting, a much simpler process than Bertillonage. “A fingerprint is a physical sign that cannot be falsified or disguised, and the mathematical likelihood of two individuals having identical fingerprints is infinitely small” (128). Occam’s razor would dictate that fingerprinting soon supplant Bertillonage as the world-wide standard for criminal identification.


The new Bertillon card?

What have been the historical repercussions of Bertillon’s system? One clear consequence of anthropometry was a concomitant wholesale reduction of the status of the human individual and his or her own sense of personal identity. As Cole puts it, “No longer a name or a position in society, the individual became biological, defined simply, crudely, as a unique body, distinguishable, in the eyes of science, from all others. No name change, no change in personality could elude Bertillon’s classification system, which ensnared the body in a textual net made of its own naked corporeality. The individual, perhaps for the first time, began and ended at its skin and bones. In short, Bertillon created a definition of the individual that the body could not escape” (Cole 2001, 53). With the Bertillon system, the power of the state—acting through is main disciplinary arm, the police—took on a “capillary existence,” in Foucault’s words, “the point where power reaches into the very grain of individuals, touches their bodies, and inserts itself into their very actions and attitudes, their discourse, learning processes, and everyday lives” (1980, 39). Cole’s formulation, “naked corporeality,” resonates with Giorgio Agamben’s well-known concept of nuda vita, translated as “bare life” or “naked life.” Agamben has directly addressed Bertillon and his biometric legacy on a number of occassions. In a short newspaper piece written shortly after he refused to be fingerprinted in order to obtain a visa to enter the United States (in order to teach a semester at NYU as a distinguished visiting professor) in 2004 under a new Bush administration law, Agamben states:

At the end of the 19th century, when Galion in England began his research into fingerprinting and when Bertillon in France invented judicial photography "for anthropometric identification" (the term of the times), such procedures were exclusively reserved for recidivist criminals.

Today, one sees the beginnings of a society in which one proposes to apply to every citizen the devices that had only been destined for delinquents. According to a project that is already on the road to realization, the normal relationship of the State to what Rousseau called the "members of the soveriegn" will be biometric, that is to say, generalized suspicion.

Under the pressure of the growing depolitization of post-industrial societies, the citizenry is progressively withdrawing from all political participation and seeing itself more and more treated like virtual criminals. Thus the political body becomes a criminal body. (2006)
"Hey, over here. Have your picture taken with a reclusive author. Today only, we'll throw in a free autograph. But wait, there's more."

Kittler has also taken note of the generalized state of criminality that attended the biometrical revolution initiated by Bertillon, one in which image capture—like Bertillon’s photographie signalétique—is on everyone’s mind: “The model of the criminal . . . became part of our everyday life, which prompted Thomas Pynchon, who refuses every photo shoot and interview, to ask his readers: ‘Is that who you are, that vaguely criminal face on your ID card, its soul snatched by the government camera as the guillotine shutter fell?’” (Kittler 2010, 142; internal quote from Pynchon 1973, 134). Pynchon’s (in)famous aversion to being photographed—hilariously parodied in an episode of The Simpsons—is a tacit ackowledgement that “[e]very image, in fact, is animated by an antinomic polarity: on the one hand, images are the reification and obliteration of a gesture (it is the imago as death mask or symbol); on the other hand, they preserve the dynamis intact (as in Muybridge’s snapshots or in any sports photograph)” (Agamben 2000, 55). Pynchon, it seems, is one of a dying breed of celebrity—nay person—that wants to keep their identity, their image, and their gestures to themselves.

Agamben has taken up Bertillon’s system again recently in his essay “Identity with the Person.” Agamben shows how an older conception of identity—the ancient Greek conception articulated by Epictesus, for example—carried “recognition” which had to do with “the person’s social prestige” (2011, 48). The nineteenth century saw a “decisive transformation in the concept of identity” (48), Agamben argues, and he attributes the cause specifically to Bertillonage. He writes:

For the first time in the history of humanity, identity was no longer a function of the social “persona” and its recognition by others but rather a function of biological data, which could bear no relation to it. Human beings removed the mask that for centuries had been the basis of their recognizability in order to consign their identity to something that belongs to them in an intimate and exclusive way but which they can in no way identify. No longer do the “others,” my fellow men, my friends and enemies, guarantee my recognition. Not even my ethical capacity to not coincide with the social mask that I have nevertheless taken on can guarantee such recognition. What now defines my identity and recognizability are the senseless arabesques that my inked-up thumb leaves on the card in some police station. This is something with which I have absolutely nothing to do, something with which and by which I cannot in any way identity myself or take distance from: naked life, a purely biological datum. (2011, 50).

Surprisingly, perhaps, Agamben suggests that all may not be lost in this biometric control society, for it is precisely at the moment in which identity in its classical sense has been utterly debased that new potentialities are unveiled: “At the moment when individuals are nailed down to a purely biological and asocial identity, they are promised the ability to assume all the masks and all the second and third lives possible on the Internet, none of which really belong to them” (Agamben 2011, 53). We could point to both the positive and negative aspects of Facebook—and social networking sites generally—as examples of what Agamben has in mind here—the sublimation of psycho-somatic existence into a purely digital life of information online. Indeed, one can't help but think that Mark Zuckerberg is indeed the new Bertillon; and we are all voluntarily creating our own Bertillon cards, cataloged and available for all to see. Agamben continues with an intriguing yet dubious call for a sort of post-human affectivity that might attend the diminution of identity into pure biological data: “To this one can add the fleeting and almost insolent pleasure of being recognized by a machine, without the burden of the emotional implications that are inseparable from recognition by another human being” (53). We might protest that it is precisely these emotional implications that delineate humanity, that to lose these burdens is to lose the burden of being human. We will leave these sticky moral and ontological questions for future generations of media archeologists to pursue.

Works Cited

Agamben, Giorgio. 2000. Means Without End: Notes on Politics. Trans. Vincenzo Binetti and Cesare Casarino. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.

———. 2006. No to Biometrics. European Graduate School. Trans. Not Bored! (accessed November 12, 2010).

———. 2011. Nudities. Trans. David Kishik and Stefan Pedatella. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Bertillon, Alphonse. 1896. Signaletic Instructions: Including the Theory and Practice of Anthropometrical Identification. Trans. R.W. McClaughry. Chicago.

Cole, Simon A. 2001. Suspect Identities: A History of Fingerprinting and Criminal Identification. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Foucault, Michel. 1978. The History of Sexuality, Vol. I: An Introduction. Trans. Robert Hurley. New York: Vintage.

———. 1980. Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews and Other Writings, 1972-1978. Ed. Colin Gordon. New York: Pantheon.

Kittler, Friedrich. 2010. Optical Media. Trans. Anthony Enns. Cambridge, UK and Malden, MA: Polity.

Martine, Kaluszynski. 2001. Republic Identity: Bertillonage as Government Technique. In Documenting Individual Identity: The Development of State Practices in the Modern World, ed. Jane Caplan and John Torpey, 123-138. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Pynchon, Thomas. 1973. Gravity’s Rainbow. New York: Viking Press.

Terranova, Tiziana. 2004. Network Culture: Politics for the Information Age. London: Pluto Press.

Tomellini, Louis. 1908. Metric Photography, Bertillon System: New Apparatus for the Criminal Department: Directions for Use and Considerations of the Applications to Forensic Medicine and Anthropology. Lyon: A. Rey &Cie.

Photo credits:

Special thanks to Travis Hall for bibliographical assistance.