An eye for evidence

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The Scene of the Crime: Rodolphe A. Reiss (1875–1929)

Elysée Museum, Lausanne, Switzerland Until 25 October

To mark its centenary, the Institute of Scientific Police at the University of Lausanne, Switzerland, has released from its archives 120 crime-related photographs taken by its founder, a pioneer of forensic photography called Rodolphe Archibald Reiss. Now on show in Lausanne's Elysée Museum (Musée de l'Elysée), the exhibition comes with a warning: it is not suitable for sensitive people or children under 14.

In popular television series, the victims of murder tend to look reassuringly healthy. But real death is unmistakable. It is both awe-inspiring and banal, and in this collection, often gruesome. There are images of the decapitated corpse of a man that was retrieved from the Lausanne–Geneva railway, along with his head; the exsanguinated body of a woman who botched a home abortion; and the old woman who was attacked so violently with an axe that her false teeth flew out, landing some distance away.

Rodolphe Reiss pioneered the use of forensic photography for recording crime scenes in the early 1900s.

Few of the cadavers pictured are identified. The curators want you to look at them as Reiss did — objectively, with the aim of extracting the maximum information about the perpetrator and the circumstances of the crime. As for motive, you are left in the dark. Because the photograph is your only source of information, you enter into it fully, taking in every detail. In doing so, you cannot help but notice the misery of the conditions in which almost all of these crimes were committed.

The French criminologist Alphonse Bertillon is usually credited with turning the haphazard practice of forensic photography into a systematic science in the late nineteenth century. But it was his younger colleague Reiss who developed and disseminated those methods, and who founded the world-renowned institute in Lausanne. Reiss helped to establish scientific police services in Russia and Brazil, and in 1914, he became the Serbian government's official investigator into the atrocities committed by the German and Austrian armies in the First World War. A contemporary wrote that he would have made an excellent model for Sherlock Holmes: tall and youthful well into his fifties, he had eyes that shone with intelligence, and a passion for deciphering signs and traces.

Unlike fictional detective work, however, forensic photography does not lend itself to fame. As legal evidence, the photographs that Reiss took in the service of the law would have fallen foul of that same law had they been published at the time, and until now the images in this exhibition have remained inaccessible to the public. Now, the authorities have decided to release them, even though a grandchild of one of the victims — or of one of the perpetrators — could still wander innocently into the exhibition and have a fright.

Seeing the photos alongside Reiss's notes — on the importance of recording the precise position of the corpse, for example, or on people's susceptibility to autosuggestion when it comes to judging physical resemblance — you are struck by how modern his thinking was. At the time, when the science of photography was still developing, many of the Swiss houses to which he was called had no electricity. A section on the usefulness of tattoos in identification is a powerful reminder of this contrast: the naked torsoes of ex-soldiers are photographed decorated with Edwardian ladies sporting wide-brimmed hats, fully clothed and revealed only from the neck up.

The methods for reading a crime scene may have evolved since Reiss's time, but the reasons for committing murder and the information contained in those scenes have not. Were Reiss to come back to life today, he would no doubt quickly find his feet in any forensic laboratory.

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Spinney, L. An eye for evidence. Nature 460, 956–957 (2009) doi:10.1038/460956b

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