Two distinct portraits, but they might just as easily be two different studies of one and the same man, for in each case the forehead is high, the nose strongly defined, the eyes cool and intelligent (whatever we mean by "intelligent" eyes), the moustache droopy but well-groomed, the hair dark and cut neatly above the ears. If not the same man, then perhaps they are brothers, or cousins. No, in fact they are murderer and victim - M Lenoble, a jewellery dealer, and M Prevost, who killed him on 10 September 1879. Approach the portraits without any prior briefing, and you would be hard-pressed indeed to figure out which was the killer, which the killed; were it not, that is, for one important detail. The head of M Lenoble has been sliced neatly free from the rest of his body, and propped up on a stand.
This brutal juxtaposition can be found towards the end of the NPG's new exhibition, which bears the arresting (pun vaguely intended) main title, The Beautiful and The Damned, and rather less enticing subtitle, The Creation of Identity in 19th-Century Photography, which sounds like the kind of option you'd think twice about taking in an Open University arts foundation course. Be reassured: whatever you make of the sociological thesis being peddled here, the raw material is all quite fascinating, especially when it comes to the later "Damned" bits - a morbidly engrossing parade of criminals, maniacs, degenerates and corpses, as well as the odd ignoble savage.
Put in mildly simplified terms, the show's curators (Peter Hamilton and Roger Hargreaves) have brought together two apparently separate traditions of early photography - the glamorising, artistic tradition of celebrity portraiture, and the would-be scientific methods used by doctors, anthropologists and police authorities to record and classify their subjects. Their aim is to show, among other things, that these apparently unrelated practices are not as hermetically sealed from each other as conventional wisdom used to admit. Is this tenable? Let us proceed sympathetically, but with caution.
Perhaps the single most telling arrangement of images in the show comes roughly halfway through, at the point where the representation of top dogs starts to bleed into that of the rejects. The upper row shows a variety of worthies who sat for the famous team of Robert Adamson and David Octavius Hill - surgeons, professors, diplomats. The bottom row, photographed on special commission by one Henry Hering, shows some inmates of the Bethlem Asylum, whose likenesses were used to instruct medical students in the detection of various forms of mental distress.
Hamilton and Hargreaves have wittily selected these pictures so that the postures of the superior persons are echoed with pleasing exactness in those of their inferiors. The result is that, just as with the Parisian murderer and murderee, the unbriefed viewer would be hard-pressed to distinguish the worthy from the barmy. (Well, except perhaps for the last chap on the lower right. You'd think twice about accepting a pamphlet from him.) The point is well made: precisely the same repertoire of expressive postures - hand to brow, fist to chin - taken to represent profound thought in the intelligentsia was read as decisive proof of unreason in the patients; and the documents that looked like impartial evidence to the Victorians now look like a kind of cultural ink-blot test.
So far, so persuasive, even for those of us who are violently allergic to the sort of argument that sneers at the Victorians for having bees in their bonnets, as though we - clever 21st-century grown-ups that we are - exist in a wholly apiary-free zone.
Still, provided we acknowledge how weird and silly we'll look two centuries hence, there seems nothing too wrong in pointing out how vulnerable our great-greats were to assorted intellectual crazes and fads, from the widespread belief among anxious intellectuals in the reality of "Degeneration" (a sort of counter-clockwise Darwinism) to the equally widespread respect granted to phrenology (the "science" of interpreting cranial bumps) and its many colourful offshoots. …