1857 - Earliest known photographic archive of prisoners in Ireland, August 1857.

Mountjoy Prison in Dublin was opened in 1850, and represents a key moment in Irish mid-Victorian penal reform. Its design was informed by the recently-established Pentonville Prison in London and served the increasing need for Irish prison spaces as the practice of transportation to British colonies declined. The decision to document its inmates was in step with photography’s rapid progress into a wide range of bureaucratic and state functions in the nineteenth century – though Irish prisons were not legally required to make a photographic record of inmates until the Habitual Criminals Act came into force 12 years later in 1869. While there are earlier examples of prison photography in Ireland, this archive of 1850s prisoner images represents the emergence of new approaches to using photography to document and track individuals in a more systematic way. Alphonse Bertillon’s combination of anthropometric detail with photography in his ‘mugshot’ archive system of the 1880s paved the way for much of our contemporary understanding of photography as a tool for identification. Today, this function can be seen in the facial recognition systems of modern smartphone cameras.

Image courtesy New York Public Library

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