A Brief History of Crime Scene Photography

Do you know what the first tool the police and forensic investigators use when they arrive at the scene of a murder? A camera.

Crime scene photography, also known as forensic photography, has come to play a pretty integral role in the documentation, investigation, and conviction of crimes all over the world. By capturing images of a crime scene, as well as of any physical evidence involved in the crime, crime scene photographs act as essential pieces of evidence for police investigators.

What is Crime Scene Photography?

Crime scene photography includes a few different types of photographs: photos of crime scenes, evidence, victims, and the criminals themselves. Crime scene photography is different from other types of photography because forensic photographers must capture very specific elements when they take photos. This is because these photos often will be used in a courtroom, and must be able to clearly display certain elements and provide certain information. Crime scenes themselves can be crucial sources of information, linking together the crime and the criminal. So, the clear and precise documentation of the crime scene itself is very important for a successful investigation. 

crime scene photography

 "Crime scene photography first began in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, when both the criminal justice system and photographic technology began to modernize." 
When a crime occurs, the first thing crime scene investigators do is secure the scene so that it can be documented just as it was found. It is during this period of time, before anything has been disturbed, that the forensic photographer does their job. A forensic photographer must consider three things when photographing a crime scene: 1) the subject, 2) the scale, and 3) a reference object. This means that photos of a crime scene, and any pieces of evidence in that crime scene, must be carefully photographed individually, as they are found, as well as generally, in relation to the overall scene. So, photographs will be taken demonstrating location, layout, and general conditions. Then, more specific photos of identifying features of the scene such as the address, footprints, or weapons will be taken. These photos must be as neutral, clear, and accurate as possible, because they will serve as references for those who have seen the scene, and for those who have not.

History of Crime Scene Photography

crime scene photography

Female mugshot from Australia cira. 1928

Crime scene photography first began in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, when both the criminal justice system and photographic technology were modernizing. Photographs began to be used by law enforcement because of the accuracy they were believed to bring to documenting and investigating crimes. Crime photography first began with the documentation of criminals in Belgium in the 1840s, and Denmark in the 1850s. The photographs from this time did not have any technical regulations, and were mostly experimental, picturing prisoners in their cells, or seated solo. These photos were taken by amateur photographers - usually policemen or other prison officials. However, by the 1870s, many countries were also photographing criminals, and professional photographers began to be employed for the task. The photographs that came out of this period are the early examples of the mugshots we see used today.

crime scene photographs

Alphonse Bertillon mugshot of an epic moustache attached to a man.

Phrenology and the Mugshot

 "Phrenologists tended to believe that criminals were born with inherent criminality, and that proof was in the brain." 
The French photographer, Alphonse Bertillon, is an important figure in the history of crime photography. He was the first to realize that in order for photographs of criminals to be accurate there has to be a standardized way of taking them. This included using appropriate lighting, scale, and angles. In 1890, Bertillon published La Photographie Judiciaire, which outlined rules for a scientifically exact form of identification photography. He stated that the subjects should be well lit, photographed full face and also in profile, with the ear visible. These guidelines sound familiar to us, because they are the same that are used today for taking mugshots. 

The guidelines developed by Bertillon also have a dark, and pseudo-medical history known as phrenology. Made famous by early psychiatrists, eugenicists and Nazis, phrenology was the belief that we could deduce the way someone was, or was going to be, through the shape of their head. Phrenologists tended to believe that criminals were born with inherent criminality, and that proof was in the brain (or rather, the shape of the skull as caused by an over or under developed brain). Not only were the meticulous photographs of criminals important as an archival tool, it also provided "evidence" of inherent criminality.

Crime Scene Photography in America

Arthur Fellig

Arthur Fellig

As photographs of criminals became more precise and standardized, so too did photographs of crime scenes. More detailed photographs began to be taken of crime scenes and other evidence, including photos of victims (documenting scars, wounds, and identifying marks), and the scenes themselves. Photographs of the position of victims, the placement of objects, and other evidence became common, and eventually necessary parts of criminal investigations. The development and use of crime scene photographs also dramatically changed how the public began to view crimes and criminals, because some photographs were used in newspapers. This also lead to the popularity of certain crime scene photographers - one of the most famous being Arthur Fellig, or "Weegee". Weegee was famous for arriving to the scene of a crime almost immediately after it had occurred, and taking detailed and compelling photographs of the scene. Though he did not consider his photos art, they were still seen as such by many. His photographs were intended as a means of documentation, but were frequently published in newspapers, and eventually displayed in museums. He is most famous for the publication of Naked City in 1945: a collection of some of his crime scene photographs.

The Future of Crime Scene Photography

Since the days of Bertillon and Weegee, crime scene photography has come a long way. But while these photographs have allowed investigators and courtrooms to have more accurate access to information, many argue that there is a negative side to crime scene photography. As photographic technology has developed, the clarity and detail of crime scene photographs has reached near perfection. But these photographs have now found their way onto the internet, into the news, and even popular television programs. Some argue this kind of access has desensitized us to the violence of certain crimes, and even glorifies crimes and criminals. While these arguments are certainly valid, the positive impacts of technologically advanced crime photography are numerous as well.

With digital technology developing constantly, forensic photography continues to advance. Now, techniques such as using infrared and ultraviolet light (to detect trace blood samples, for instance) are commonplace, and allow investigators to access important and extremely helpful information when investigating a crime. Even photographs of victims, their wounds, and identifying marks are taken with greater precision and accuracy, allowing for the detection of details that would have been missed in the past. Needless to say, as technology continues to change and develop, the ability for investigations to be carried out swiftly and justly will develop, too.

Posted by TalkDeath

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