• Unspeakable Times

How Crime Scene Photography Evolved From The Victorian Era To Today

The evolution of crime scene photos begins with pictures taken to identify inmates in the mid-1800s and leads right up to today's modern digital cameras capturing every minute detail of a crime scene. Tracking how crime scene photography has evolved is like going through an image-based tour of crime through the ages. In order to determine exactly how crime scene photography has changed, one first needs to understand the science and methodology behind it, which have become more sophisticated over time.

From Bertillon's grid processing to the use of infrared lighting, forensic photography has changed drastically over the years. Thanks to new technology in crime scene photography, law enforcement officials can take instantaneous pictures of evidence and share clues with other agencies. It has become far harder for the average criminal to escape justice due to these advancements. 

This almost artistic form of mystery solving is a fascinating part of the investigative process. Here is a detailed history of just how far crime scene photography has come.

  • Photography Use Among Law Enforcement Began With Inmates

    Photo: Gallen-Kallelan Museo/No Restrictions / Wikimedia Commons

    Crime scene photography started with the basic documenting of inmates for identification purposes. These photos helped authorities keep track of who was in the prison system and allowed for police and other photographers to practice taking pictures on what were still primitive cameras. Belgium was the first country to take photos of their inmates, starting in 1843.

    The practice spread to Denmark in 1851 and expanded from there. Quite quickly, as photography became more widespread a practice, this led to standardized mugshots and "Wanted" posters. This early introduction to photography in law enforcement expanded to include crime scenes. 

  • The Practice Of Photographing Dead Loved Ones Would Lead To Autopsy Photos

    Photo: Portrait by Annie Stebler-Hopf / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

    During the Victorian Period, people documented their recently deceased loved ones by having photographs taken of them. These pictures were a way to show the level of one's grief as well as to create a memento of the person. This practice made photographing the dead less taboo. 

    Soon, law enforcement agencies drew from this practice to photograph dead bodies for autopsy photos. One infamous autopsy photo is of John Wilkes Booth, Abraham Lincoln's assassin. After a manhunt, Booth was cornered and shot to death in a barn. During his autopsy on the USS Montauk, a picture was taken of his body. Although the picture has since been lost, it was a precursor to autopsy pictures as proof of and insight into a criminal or victim's death. 

  • Photo Enhancement Began As Early As The 1870s

    Photo: Burns Archive. 1892 press photo / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

    "Photoshopping" has become a verb in modern society. It's based on the computer program Adobe Photoshop, which allows people to manipulate photos. However, photographers have been editing pictures to create clearer images since the 1870s. Photographer Abner Peeler started airbrushing pictures - essentially using a delicate painting technique to alter pictures - in 1879. By 1893, Charles Burdick had received a patent for the technique.

    Early photo manipulation could only really lighten shadows or overlay several pictures taken with different aperture adjustments onto each other to see different details. Of course, early editing techniques were - as they are today - often used to fool the public or satisfy a subject's vanity. But, by and large, these techniques were quite useful to early crime scene photographers in enhancing their pictures for evidence. 

  • The First Organized Crime Scene Photography Method Used A Grid Pattern

    Photo: Richard Arthur Norton/Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

    In 1903, the first organized method of photographically documenting a crime scene was invented. The man who created the system was Alphonse Bertillon, a French criminologist. His method involved dividing each room (or scene) into a superimposed grid pattern. He called his system "metric photography."

    He would take pictures of each section of the grid in a particular order. Once the photos were developed, Bertillon could place them on a board following the grid that he created. This allowed attorneys and law enforcement to better recreate the scene in court for the judge and jury. Bertillon later gave classes on how to use his system.