Iconicity and the Objective Image, Crime in France 1880 - 1914.

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Between the 1880s and the First World War, the French public exhibited a broad interest in crime. New forms of crime coverage in the popular press and new scientific practices of criminal investigation were both concerned with the authentic representation of true crime and both claimed their representations would allow jurists, police, or readers to “directly observe” reality. In this dissertation, I examine the iconographies of crime mobilized by French journalists, police, and jurists during this time period, putting them into conversation with emergent notions of objectivity, realism, and verisimilitude. I base my conclusions, in part, upon the formal analysis of images from illustrated newspapers, the French Police Archives, and the archives of the Assizes court of the former Seine department.In the first half of my dissertation, I trace the emergence of certain proto-objective values (non-partisanship, facts over opinion, moral value of distance) in the prospectuses of the major newspapers of the mass press and examine the simultaneous development of sensationalist news coverage. I argue that although French crime coverage was characterized by the emotional tone and lurid language of faits divers, it traded off interests in indexicality, transparency, lifelikeness, and legibility, complementing French editors’ commitments to non-partisanship, informational content, and the empowerment of readership. This reflection is complemented by an analysis of 757 crime-related illustrations published by the illustrated weekly supplements of the Petit Parisien and the Petit Journal. I argue that it was specifically through the iconic medium of engraving and the visual conventions of melodrama that the supplements could reconcile the didactic and editorial aims of prior generations of the illustrated press with the informational news focus of modern journalism. Moreover, I demonstrate that this medium and style could provide a certain lifelikeness and legibility that photo-mechanical prints could not. In the second half of my dissertation, I turn from the field of the French press to the French criminal justice system where concerns about objectivity and representation were also on the rise. Here, I introduce the term “trace objectivity” to refer to the use of indices and measurements to correct for the fallible nature of human memory. Movements of trace objectivity included the professionalization of legal experts and expertise, the rise of forensic analysis of material evidence, the development of the mug shot and other scientific representations of criminals, and a wave of psychology studies which cast doubt upon verbal testimony. I draw upon historiographical research to demonstrate that such practices hit significant obstacles in their implementation. Trace objective representations were, to some degree, neglected in favor of traditional methods like conventional portraiture and vernacular description because they did not align with the aesthetics of memory, which, despite the efforts of scientists, remain essential to the project of criminal justice. In my final chapter, I analyze the images of criminals in the police and court archives. These archives hold souvenirs and reconstitutions which reproduce similar representational strategies to trace objectivity and sensationalism. I notably remark that collectors, and the archives, value souvenirs for their physical connection to the crime event and the relational history that links the final possessor with the original collector - precisely the indexicality and chains of custody that legal reformers like Binet and Garraud valued in material evidence. In other words, souvenir collection draws from the same desire that undergirded trace objectivity: to have an objective, inhuman witness to past events. Reconstitutions, like staged photographs and sketches reproducing violent crimes, provide a foil to the representational strategy of the souvenir or trace. The presence of reconstitutions in the archives indicates that criminal justice actors needed to bring the crime back to life in the present, since the trace was always partial and past. This dissertation thus serves to re-evaluate the power and pervasiveness of iconicity in representations of crime. Iconicity, lifelikeness, and legibility play a key role in the practice and understanding of criminal justice systems and, accordingly, it is our duty to interrogate the aesthetics of representations of crime.





Bass, Patricia Barclay (2020). Iconicity and the Objective Image, Crime in France 1880 - 1914. Dissertation, Duke University. Retrieved from https://hdl.handle.net/10161/22205.


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