ON THE SO19 GALLERY: Victorian Mugshots

In addition to giving contemporary researchers a plethora of information about criminals and crime, the digitization of 19th-century police and prosecution records yields a trove of extraordinary images. The usefulness of the nascent art of photography to policing was quickly recognized. The 1840s saw the first photographed "mugshots." By the 1880s, the practice of using photographs as a supplement to written records was widespread in Britain, Europe and the U.S. The standardization of the mugshot is attributed to the brilliant Alphonse Bertillon, better known as the inventor of fingerprint identification.

Despite their growing standardization over time, 19th-century mugshots are full of variations, human touches, and an odd artfulness. The metal-edged chalkboards and different hand positions of the images shown on the So19 Gallery give each police station's images a commonality, yet the individual faces, bodies, clothes and gazes have a searing distinctiveness.

I'm fascinated by the varied garb the subjects were wearing when they were photographed and by the different positions mandated for their hands. I'm equally intrigued by the charges: "false pretences" of Sylvester Hulbert and Mustapha Irola, the particular larcenies of Alice Caush and Kate Stobbs. Like all of the best photographs, these images both suggest and resist narrative and interpretation.

A few samples are offered here; for more, visit the Gallery page of the main Society Nineteen site. The images displayed on the site are drawn from the records of the Dorset History Centre via History Extra and Ancestry.co.uk and the Flickr photostreams of Angus McDiarmid and the Tyne and Wear Museums and Archives.