The mug shot has always been relatively controversial. But do you know it’s interesting history? It all goes back to the history of photography itself, and it all starts in Belgium.
The History of the Mug Shot
The 1840s were a revolutionary period for the art of photography. While William Henry Harrison became the first US president to be captured in a photograph after his inauguration speech, it has been lost to time. Another iconic daguerreotype featuring John Quincy Adams, exists as the oldest known presidential photograph.
But enough about presidents. The point is that while photography was primarily aimed at capturing the nobility and prestige of the subjects, it would soon find an unlikely application in law enforcement.
The concept of the mugshot emerged in Belgium during the 1840s. The primary goal was simple: photograph prisoners to facilitate their identification if they ever re-offended post-release.
Recognizing the potential of this innovation, police forces globally began to toy with the idea of incorporating photography into their operations. Thus, the U.S. saw the birth of the rogues’ galleries, which showcased collections of criminals’ photographs and, at times, even made them public, urging citizens to remain vigilant.
Alphonse Bertillon and the Art of the Mug Shot
It wasn’t until the 1880s that mugshots became relatively standardized. Alphonse Bertillon, the chief of criminal identification for the Paris police, played a pivotal role in achieving this.
Bertillion introduced the concept of pairing two photographs: one frontal and one profile. Alongside these photos, physical descriptions and specific measurements, like ear or foot size, were documented. This compilation was termed a “portrait parlé”—a speaking image.
Bertillon’s vision was clear: even if criminals adopted disguises or aliases, their unique physical characteristics would betray them.
As a testament to his dedication, the New York City Police Department, in 1908, provided guidelines on correctly executing Bertillon’s method. This documentation even described how to handle uncooperative subjects during the mugshot process.
However, despite Bertillon’s contribution, his descriptive methods were soon overshadowed by the more efficient process of fingerprinting.
Yet, the mugshot itself was here to stay. It became an integral part of identification processes everywhere.
Mug Shots in Contemporary Culture
Today, mugshots serve multiple purposes for the alleged criminal themselves. In fact, for celebrities, these images can sometimes even enhance their mystique, further ingraining them in pop culture. Johnny Cash, for instance, turned one of his brief incarcerations into a song, and today, his mugshot-themed merchandise sells as a testament to his “rebel” image.
While some celebrity mugshots serve as tabloid fodder, others, in specific contexts, represent symbols of resistance. Notable figures from the civil rights movement, like Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr., had their mugshots taken during their arrests. For them, these images were badges of honor, symbolizing their unyielding fight against systemic injustice.
Since its inception in 1840s Belgium, what started as a mere tool for identification now serves as both a mark of shame and a badge of honor. For some.