The Criminal Type



What does a criminal look like? Spectatorship has been tied up with crime and punishment since the first public executions, but in no country has this question been given such continuous priority over other social problems as in the United States, where mugshot tabloids and true life crime shows coexist with open digital records and juried trials. Denying privacy to the accused—indeed, demanding their visibility—has long been a preemptively punitive feature of the American judicial system; the internet and new algorithm-based technology have only magnified the impact, yielding more multifaceted and discreet forms of digital punishment. This exhibition examines the historical exploitation of photography as a weapon of scientific criminology, side by side with the work of select contemporary artists who deploy the “criminal” portrait as a form of resistance against this repressive and deterministic usage.

Formal efforts to pin down the “criminal type” can be traced back to the 19th century classification craze, which saw scientific and criminological research harness the new medium of photography to chart and predict different observable traits and forms of aberrance, in everything from birds’ wingspans to human craniums. If the typical criminal could be positively defined, then not only could crime be prevented but the inherent difference and goodness of all other “normal” types assured.

But who was establishing the parameters of the normal?


From its earliest incarnations, the field of criminology was rooted in notions of biological and moral superiority, reflecting widespread concerns in the late 1800s over the “degeneration” of the European races. A series of leading scientists across the continent offered those concerned a welcome validation of their relative normalcy by proposing that physiognomy and genetic inheritance—nature, not nurture—were key to tracing and predicting criminality. This shifted the focus away from environmental and socioeconomic factors and towards heritable, visible traits; just as status and virtue were a matter of rightful inheritance, the criminal disposition was innate and could not be prevented, only recognized.

Jacob A Riis, Police Headquarters, The “Rogue’s Gallery” c. 1890, Archival photograph, detail

Photography, hailed for its evidentiary reliability and supposed objectivity, was the perfect tool to support these pseudo-scientific theories of social hierarchy. Better yet, photographs offered what Allan Sekula termed a “mute testimony” to their own credibility, over and against the supposedly duplicitous “texts” of the criminal.1 Particularly for those disenfranchised members of society who lacked a voice already, photography presented numerous opportunities for inscription into systems of judgment beyond their control.

The mid-19th century slave daguerreotypes of Swiss researcher Louis Agassiz offer one of the earliest examples of the standardization of photographic portraiture to reduce human subjects to scientific specimens. With the goal of supporting his polygenesist view—that Africans and Europeans shared no common evolutionary origins— Agassiz selected racially “pure” slaves from South Carolinian plantations to be systematically photographed as evidence of their fundamental difference. The images reveal an uncomfortable link between the discredited field of phrenology, particularly the assumptions about racial inferiority that it claimed to prove, and the aesthetic conventions that would come to define criminal portraiture. Abnormality—in this case possessing physical traits that deviated from the white, Western norm—became a byword for inferiority, and photographs marking these differences were treated as scientific evidence of this self- serving association.

Arne Svenson, Claude Hankins from the series Prisoners, ca. 1900, Archival photograph

In the 1880s, British anthropologist Francis Galton went on to expand the scope of the abnormal with his composite portraits of various “inferior” types, including criminals, Jews, and the mentally ill. These he then set against comparable portraits of the “healthy and talented” classes, as part of his experimental studies to support the new field of study he called eugenics. “Composite criminal types,” as he called them, were intended to represent what the average criminal looked like; one could thereby predict an individual’s criminal tendencies or talents based on how closely he or she resembled each type.

The notion of criminality as an abnormality inscribed in the body was carried even further by Galton’s contemporary, Italian physician Cesare Lombroso. Credited with laying the foundation for the field of modern criminology, Lombroso is perhaps best known for his theory of the “born criminal,” which conceived of criminality as an inherited trait that signaled evolutionary inferiority. Criminals, Lombroso wrote, were biological embodiments of “primitive humanity” identifiable by particular features including hawk-like or flat noses, dark skin, and tattoos.2 If one possessed five or more characteristics from his list, one could already fall into the criminal category without having even committed a crime.

Paolo Cirio, Obscurity, 2016, Photographic prints on metal, 4.1 x 5.8 in.

Finally formalizing the juridical application of these principles of physical determinism was Parisian police officer Alphonse Bertillon, who introduced the first standardized system of criminal records combining physical measurements and homogeneous front and profile photographs of each offender. By the 1890s, most major American police departments had adopted the Bertillon System, applying it to their existing “rogues’ galleries,” which had been assembled in the preceding decades to catalogue and display portraits at first of only convicted offenders, and later of the accused as well. Though fingerprinting soon rendered much of Bertillon’s methodology obsolete, the mugshot remained as the enduring embodiment of photography and criminology’s troubled marriage.

Already in the 1800s, the presence of one’s portrait in a rogues’ gallery was “as much an indisputable indication of criminality as was being in jail.”3


Today, American courts actively prevent juries from seeing suspects’ mugshots to avoid undue prejudice.4 Yet despite the highly damaging stigma of guilt its reductive format carries in and out of the courtroom, the criminal portrait-cum-mugshot has been pointedly public since the NYPD became the first precinct to open its rogues’ galleries to the masses.

Websites like Mugshots.com and The Smoking Gun have since become the rogues’ galleries’ crude descendants, profiting off a public curiosity and appetite for humiliation under the pretense of preventing crime.


The result is a life-altering criminal stamp on the digital footprint of those who can often least afford it.

Eric Etheridge, Breach of Peace (Rev. LeRoy Wright) 1968 and 2010, Archival and Digital Photographs, Dimensions Variable

Globally, the U.S. has proven uniquely lax in regulating mugshots’ dissemination, and Paolo Cirio’s Obscurity project takes the country to task by revealing the extent to which privacy in the digital era has become a fundamental, under- protected human right. Part artwork, part internet activism, the project aims to hinder the digital profiteering of the now hundreds of websites that scrape mugshots from precinct websites around the country and publish them, charging individuals for their removal. As Sarah Lageson points out, any contact with the criminal justice system now leaves individuals indiscriminately compromised by their digital records, whose mere existence is now a form of ongoing punishment.5

Zora J. Murff’s Corrections offers an important complement to the Obscurity project, capturing the artist’s experience as a tracker for a juvenile detention center in Iowa working with young people completing their probation. Anonymous portraits of these juvenile offenders are intermixed with symbolic, fragmentary images that represent the interlinked worlds inside and outside the detention center walls. In part, the series reflects Murff’s frustration with a system that fails to account for the challenges of enforcing compliance among young people facing compromising environmental circumstances outside their control.

The legal requirement that he obscure his subjects’ faces opens up the question of who in our society should be guaranteed the right to move on from a criminal past. Unlike mugshots, these portraits frustrate our desire to see what the “criminals” look like, to either associate with or dissociate from them. In so doing, Gemma Goodale-Sussen writes, “they take back ownership of the face.” (We might consider that ownership subverted by the fact that half of all American adults are now in a facial recognition database, which, as Joy Buolamwini highlights in her work, can be searched by law enforcement using unaudited and often biased algorithms.6)

Offering a different approach to taking back ownership of the face is Breach of Peace, Eric Etheridge’s project on the 1960s civil rights activists, the Freedom Riders. By pairing new portraits and interviews with their corresponding mugshots, Etheridge’s work “corrects the historical record,” exposing the slippery designation of the criminal brand when wielded by those in power as a tool for maintaining the status quo. The new portraits represent their subjects “not as dehumanized icons of criminality,” as Maurice Berger puts it, “but as exemplary citizens and complex human beings.”7

Though many of the mugshots inadvertently conveyed the Riders’ humanity, their intention was no less nefarious. Arne Svenson’s Prisoners, however, offers an unusual example of humanistic portraiture colliding with juridical process. Svenson discovered that this trove of mugshots was the work of a much-admired Californian studio photographer, contracted in the early 1900s to capture new local arrestees—which she did using the same backdrops and lighting typically employed for portraits of local brides or politicians. The sensitivity of the portraits compared to the aggressively utilitarian quality of modern mugshots raises questions about how the power dynamic between photographer and sitter manifests in the final image, and how these aesthetic optics in turn affect our perception of the subject pictured.

Zora J. Murff, Lucas at 15 from the series Corrections, 2014, Digital Photograph, 9 x 7.15 in

In its aesthetic evolution, the mugshot has come to increasingly reflect the system it serves, one whose efficiency depends upon denying individuals the expression of their unique attributes and circumstances. The technological short- circuiting of the criminal justice system by new algorithm- based automated decision systems (ADS) brings us back full circle to Galton and Lombroso’s invalidated work. Like their forebears, ADS like those condemned in ProPublica’s 2017 study—risk assessment algorithms intended to gauge a defendant’s pretrial risk of reoffending8—aim to predict the criminal tendencies of still-innocent individuals based on a series of personal characteristics. In their operational elimination of nuance, algorithms can be seen as a modern manifestation of Galton’s superficial dichotomy of “good” and “bad” types: “healthy and talented” classes are permitted criminal acts without becoming criminal types, while “inferior” classes get branded as criminal types before ever having committed a crime. There is no overlap between the two types, no narrative middle ground. Instead of superseding the discredited theories of the 19th century, we have merely reproduced them;

...by insisting on our capacity to predict the unpredictable, we treat justice as a zero-sum game and undermine the presumption of innocence upon which the integrity of our judicial system depends.


Elizabeth Breiner © 2019
apexart Open Call Exhibition


1. Allan Sekula, “The Body and the Archive,” October 39 (Winter 1986): 6, https://doi.org/10.2307/778312.

2. Gina Lombroso-Ferrero, Criminal Man, According To The Classification Of Cesare Lombroso (New York: Putnam, 1911), 7.

3. Lourdes Delgado, “Mugshot’s Bias: A Semantic History Of Guilt,” Photography And Culture 10, no. 3 (November 2017): 223, https:// doi.org/10.1080/17514517.2017.1361140.

4. Olivia Solon, “Haunted by a mugshot: how predatory websites exploit the shame of arrest,” The Guardian, June 12, 2018, https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2018/jun/12/mugshot- exploitation-websites-arrests-shame.

5. Sarah Lageson, “Found Out and Opting Out: The Consequences of Online Criminal Records for Families,” The ANNALS of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 665, no. 1 (April 10, 2016): 127-141, https://doi.org/10.1177/0002716215625053.

6. Clare Garvie et al., “The Perpetual Line-up: Unregulated Police Face Recognition in America,” Georgetown Law, October 18, 2016, https://www.perpetuallineup.org/

7. Maurice Berger, “50 Years After Their Mug Shots, Portraits Of Mississippi’s Freedom Riders,” The New York Times, May 15, 2018, https://www.nytimes.com/2018/05/15/lens/50-years-after-mug-shots- portraits-of-mississippi-freedom-riders.html.

8. ProPublica’s 2017 study of the widely-used COMPAS risk assessment algorithm found that the assigned scores were deeply unreliable in predicting crime, no better than the flip of a coin; worse yet, they erroneously labeled black offenders as high risk nearly twice as often as their white counterparts. Julia Angwin et. al, “Machine Bias,” ProPublica, May 23, 2016, https://www.propublica.org/article/ machine-bias-risk-assessments-in-criminal-sentencing.