The bitter bit

Ilsen About


text for Sans titre, M.Bertillon exhibition, 23.03-9.05.12

FOAM FOtografie museum of AMsterdam, Amsterdam

“The less we are free to decide who we are or to live as we like, the more we try to put up a front, to hide the facts, and to play roles (…). Our identity is changed so frequently that nobody can find out who we actually are.” 1

Who, then, is this Mr Bertillon who adorns the cover of this untitled work? This man, to whom Stéphanie Solinas accords a label but withdraws his title, is not just anyone. In his day, he was known as either a great scientist or a dangerous character, according to differing points of view, and acquired such prestige that his name was on everyone’s lips, both in Paris and throughout the world. His notoriety was such that it seemed natural to give his name to everything and the terms bertillon, to bertillon, bertillonade and bertillonage became common parlance. On his death, admirers of his work lamented his departed genius and compared him to Pasteur; whilst his denigrators hailed the passing of a dangerous measurer, whom they saw as having been afflicted during his life by a mania for measuring his neighbours. Bertillon’s identity seems thus marked by this duplicity, between the paradise of science and the limbo of pretence. His life appears to unfold exactly in the middle of this period beset by the brilliant intuition of a modern man and the unsettling drifts of the science of identity which he founded.


Bertillon’s origins (1853-1914) meant that he was faced with real misunderstanding in his life, and his future as a scientist was placed in doubt from very early on. He came from a family of scientists renowned as pioneers of the anthropological and social sciences at the end of the 19th century. His grand-father, Achille Guillard, was a botanist and also contributed to founding the basis of demography; his father, Louis-Adolphe asserted himself as a demographer, anthropologist and above all as one of the founders of modern statistics. His own brother, Jacques, followed in his father’s footsteps as a statistician and demographer and championed pro-birth arguments to encourage the increase of the French population. Faced with such incomparable examples, Alphonse initially struggled to find his way and it was quite by chance that he came to be employed as a ledger clerk at the police headquarters in Paris.  Haunted by the anthropological and statistical work which constituted his home environment, and in spite of not having any kind of diploma, within just a decade, Bertillon managed to implement the foundations of an intellectual revolution, transforming police work for a long time.

In 1882, he undertook an initial classification of the identity of the defendants and criminals passing through the prefecture prison, using body measurements. Within a few years, he had a series of successes which confirmed the validity of a system intended to compensate for the gaps in the police records system. The failings in the civil registry office, the accuracy of the measurements, the imperfection of identity documents in circulation, and the disorganisation of police files lead Bertillon to set out the necessity of rationalising the system for recording peoples’ details. “Human society, which declares itself to be united, takes a less exact account of the lives for which it is responsible than the Belle-Jardinière store takes of the trousers which it sells,” he wrote in 1883. His ideal did not only aim to submit criminals to constant surveillance. He underlined the civilised nature of his system compared to the judiciary body marking and tattooing still in use at the beginning of the 19th century. He also described the necessity of distinguishing between the unlucky, those delinquents for a day; and the “intelligent and vigorous” criminals, those who would do anything to hide their identity and commit new crimes. In order to protect society, the scientific method thus revealed should manage to mark out society’s enemies in order to transport them far away from France, to the abyss of the penal colony.

Early on, Bertillon perceived the painless and silent nature of his system which used a multitude of complementary techniques. Each suspect, criminal or prisoner was photographed, their faces and its countenance described, using precise and mathematic vocabulary; the parts of their bodies were measured using special instruments resembling those used by doctors. Within a few minutes, each individual almost involuntarily gave up their trails and could henceforth be recognised from among billions of other individuals for the rest of their lives. This anthropometric operation, quick, inexpensive and effective, made it possible to accept the challenge hurled by a criminal that Bertillon recalls as a threat:

“You must have bees in your head to think that I will tell you who I am. You are paid to know my name and I will not tell it to you!”

Identities under the lens

According to the principles outlined by Bertillon from the 1880s, institutionalised in France in the 1890s and extended to almost all the police services throughout the world by the eve of the First World War, clues to identity henceforth no longer seemed to turn up by chance. From this date, a double photographic portrait, devised according to precise standards, was now included in all police files. Dozens of measurements, abbreviated and coded terms that make up an individual’s description, were reduced to the thickness of a piece of card, itself inserted in the Arcanum of State reports, in the vast files of the police.

Entire buildings were built to receive these files, which were arranged in floors, rows, cupboards, draws and sections. Employees, specialising in identity and equipped with white coats and magnifying glasses, took down measurements, wrote and translated these cryptic annotations, carried out research and contributed daily to the discovery of identity, which has become ordinary. The identity, as defined by Bertillon, is not only a fresh combination of hand-written marks, but the means of an everyday communication which reveals to the identifier, transformed into a detector, the appearance of the subject seemingly captured by science.

A Fabric of decapitation

Stephanie Solinas’ work originates in the decapitation of identity. Where, however, the guillotine cuts the living, with no possibility of recovery, the scissors and the cutter blend together with regenerating glue, reconstructing an unexpected identity. By acting on the body of Bertillon, the inventor of a limited system of dividing up identity, the work presents its author with the consequences of Bertillon’s practices and confronts her with another, infinite, composition of identity.

In his box, bound by thread and pages, Bertillon seems first of all to be kept out of sight; the black band of this austere volume seems to offer a modest yet elegant memorial for this august individual. A sense of uneasiness grows, however, with the very first glimpse of the work, which introduces an eye, pierced in the centre by a white paper cut-out. Multiple fragments, which challenge the laws of geometry, allow the depth of the disintegration inflicted on Bertillon’s face to be seen. At the end of this series, his self-portrait, posed as a point of reference on a police self-identification card, contemplates the extent of the disaster.

Past the edge of a paper face, this scattering persists and creeps into the lines of his own life, described by a biographer niece who bears his name. Episodes of his life are recounted and brought together with images in black and white that oscillate between the judicial report and the photographs of a possible journey through time: walls of old buildings side by side with numbers or letters on the doors or the streets, with the haze of the countryside; the grove of a garden; a dark kaleidoscope; Parisian monuments; the wet ground of the street; a palisade. In a recess, another face of Bertillon, with his eyes closed comes out of the weathered stone. The book closes up for the first time, to be opened again and to reveal a maze of frames fitted together, superimposed, filled in, hollowed out, open and closed: a multitude of open lockets, the shape of which evokes that of family portraits positioned on a bedroom pedestal table, the frame of this rectangular card that clashes with multiform frames of the fragments, the frame of texts, of photographs, these frames that are amputated from the body of the book.

Then the repairing hands of a surgeon operate to cut out the fragments, fold the corners and stick back the pieces that fit together like pieces in a building kit. Piece by piece, skin against skin. The book as a potential face then introduces this face, inlaid in its pages, like a bust in search of its body. Whose face is it then, which looks at us? The colourisation of the features makes it live, but also makes it similar to a funeral mask; its volume fulfils the dream of an ideal reproduction of the face which science would enable to breathe, alternately flattened then insufflated by life. This illusion, however, cannot conceal its manifest and paradoxical strangeness, its permanence and its evanescence; its eloquence and its silence; its strength and its fragility, all these associations that make up the visual signature of these legal identification photographs.

After the execution, placed inside his box, his final frame, this paper Bertillon looks at us and is turned into one of those vanitas that decorate scientists’ offices. But he does not tell of the weakness of men faced with the fragility of life, as the skulls refer to a certain death. The fixed gaze, this multiform face tells of the battle initiated to thwart the plans of objectification and simplification of our identity and contemplates its defeat.

1 Hannah Arendt, “We refugees” (1943), reed. in The Jew as Pariah. Jewish Identity and Politics in the Modern Age, New York, Grove Press, 1978.