About portraits and looks



The idea of ​​photography as evidence of reality in Literature

On at least two occasions, Louise Maigret is faced with the vision of an unfolding of her husband's activities, when she goes to the cinema with him.[1] Em L'amie de madame Maigret (1950), the character created by Georges Simenon understands the sudden invitation when, on the screen of the Paramount from the boulevard of Italian, there appears a communiqué from the prefecture of the Paris police with an anthropometric portrait, in front and in profile, of a suspect carrying different identities. On the way out, commissioner Jules Maigret explains to his wife that the idea had come from Moers, an expert from the Judiciary Police, dissatisfied with the deformations caused in the photographs published in the newspapers by the plots of the clichés and by the dyeing process.

The suggestion of making use of the cinematographic screen, capable of enlarging the “smallest features” and of attracting the attention of the spectators, immediately proves its effectiveness. The suspect is recognized by a young lawyer who has been discrediting the commissioner's investigative methods and who proposes a “truce” to him, and by the family who had rented a room to Mr. Peeters, one of the many aliases of Alfred Moss.

The same resource is used again in Maigret is having fun (1957), on the occasion of the murder of Eveline Jave, found dead in a closet in the office of her husband Philippe, a renowned physician. Simenon, this time, registers the public's reactions to the exhibition of images of Doctor Gilbert Négrel, suspected of the crime, and the victim: some move in their armchairs; others whisper; one shouts “Enough”; Maigret hears someone muttering that he had guessed the criminal's identity. The reaction of the commissioner, who was on vacation and was following the case in the newspapers, is different from his previous experience: the showing on the screen of a group portrait, in which Négrel was marked with a cross, and the photograph of Mrs. Jave wearing a bathing suit being punished seems somewhat “indecent”.

The expert's idea is nothing more than expanding the vision of photography as an instrument for positivist cataloging of individuals centered on physiognomic expression. As Roland Barthes recalls, photography was born as “an art of the Person: of his identity, of his civil character, of what could be called […] the body's self-assurance”. Placed at the service of police investigation work, the “art of the Person” becomes a “scientific” system thanks to the contributions of Alphonse Bertillon, inventor of judicial anthropometry, based on biometric analysis and front and profile portraits of suspect individuals (1879),[2] and Rodolphe Archibald Reiss, author of The judicial photographie (1903)

It is not by chance that the names of Bertillon and Reiss, alongside that of Edmond Locard[3], are cited by Simenon in the first novel starring Maigret, pietr le letton (1931). The commissioner uses the “extraordinary instruments that the Bertillons, the Reiss, the Locards placed in the hands of the police and that constitute a veritable science”, but he also develops his own theory, as he believes that behind a criminal there is a player, who is the main target of the research work. A supporter of the “fissure” theory, Maigret goes against the grain of conventional methods: he waits for the moment when “the man appears behind the player”.

The belief that photography is a “certificate of presence” (Barthes) is at the base of the “scientific” use of this type of image and Simenon is not alien to this context when, in L'amie de madame Maigret, provides the commissioner with three sets of portraits that should help identify a “fat and dark, refinedly dressed” foreigner, a young woman in a white hat and an accomplice who resembled a “seller of transparent postcards”.[4]. Moers, who had organized the sets based on the hundreds of thousands of cards kept in the archives and his own visual memory, believes that the images of the accomplice were the best, as they corresponded to the idea of ​​the character described by the manager of the Beauséjour hotel.

Her intuition proves to be correct, as she recognizes him in one of the portraits taken by Maigret, who discovers his identity in the notes on the back of the image. From there, a mechanism is triggered that will have as its final point the projection of the portrait of Alfred Moss on the cinematographic screen. The night porter at the Hotel Claridge calls him Paterson and claims to have known him in Milan under the name of Mosselaer. The sister-in-law immediately recognizes him, but doesn't know much about him; although he and his brother don't look much alike, when seen from the back they have a “striking resemblance” and she even got confused.

Despite all his efforts, Maigret is unable to arrest Moss, but is amused when he discovers that the trio's escape had been determined by a snapshot that portrayed him and his wife at the door of a pension in Dieppe. Involved in two homicides along with the dark foreigner, Moss had come across the couple's photo in an article dedicated to the commissioner by an illustrated magazine. As he had seen Madame Maigret several times in Anvers Square, where he was going to receive orders from the chief through the young woman in the white hat, he came to the conclusion that the commissioner's wife had been entrusted with that "delicate part of the investigation" and warned his associates .[5]

In the works from 1950 and 1957, Simenon dwells on the idea of ​​photography as evidence of reality, even though he is aware of the existence of differences within the type, as evidenced by the episode of the Beauséjour manager, who explains to Maigret that the young woman in the hat was “ more distinguished” than the women in the sample, and that Mr. Levine did not have the appearance of a foreigner, being able to stay in a large hotel on the Champs-Elysées without attracting attention. In pietr le letton, on the contrary, the author explores, in principle, the psychological relationship that a person can have with a portrait. Having come to the conclusion that Pietr had three identities – the German shipowner Oswald Oppenheim, staying at the luxurious Majestic hotel[6]; Norwegian Navy Second Officer Olaf Swaan; and the Russian Fédor Yourovitch, who lived in a shabby hotel in the Marais, located on rue du Roi-de-Sicile, full of dead ends, alleys, “bustling courtyards, half Jewish quarter, half Polish colony” –, Maigret decides use the “crack” theory to undermine the opponent's psychological safety.

Installed in the Majestic, where he created “a large, immobile black spot among the gilding, the lights, the comings and goings of silk clothes, fur coats, perfumed and effervescent silhouettes”, the commissioner decides to follow Pietr for a morning and manages to bring out the man who was hiding behind the player. In a modest bistro, where the crook had gone to drink an “imitation of absinthe”, Maigret drops the portrait of Madame Swaan on the counter and follows Pietr's reaction in the mirror. His eyes hard and his features immobile, the man had his hand gripping the glass. Suddenly, there was a small noise and the Latvian man dropped the pieces of glass onto the counter.

The discovery of the portrait that proves the theory of the “fissure” was due to the commissioner's observation capacity. On the train in which Pietr had arrived in Paris, the corpse of a man who was a perfect copy of him had been found. In the inside pocket of the vest worn by the dead man, a tissue paper envelope had been found with a lock of woman's hair. Maigret concludes that this had contained a portrait album format, only used in the countryside and in small provincial towns.

The expert from the Judicial Identity laboratory manages to discover the name and address of the photographer, which prompts the commissioner to travel to Fécamp. With a lot of patience, as the photographer was not very loquacious, the policeman had access to an album, in which all the portraits taken in the studio/shop/newspaper dealer were kept. The description of very fine black hair leads to the identification of Mrs Swaan, the “only presentable model” in the showcase, photographed eight years earlier.

After putting Pietr's psychological resistance to the test, the commissioner makes a startling discovery. When searching the hotel room where Yourovitch lived with Anna Gorskine, he finds a gray cloth bag on the mattress that contained some photos and a diploma. Making use of a long shot effect, Simenon describes two of them in minute detail. In the first one, it starts on a street in the city of Pskov, passes to a house in the foreground, and then focuses on the family that was posing for the photographer: a forty-year-old man, small, gray and pale; a smiling woman, who tried to look “distinguished”; two boys between seven and eight, holding hands. The physical resemblance between the two children does not deceive Maigret. Observing the twins' eyes, he notices a great difference in character: one had “a resolute expression, staring at the device with an aggressive air, with a kind of challenge”; the other looked at his brother furtively, "with confidence, with admiration."

The author uses the same procedure[7] to describe the second, larger and “more significant” photograph taken during a banquet by the Ugala Corporation of the University of Tartu. The description of the three tables set, which had a shield as a background, follows the characterization of the students and, among them, Simenon highlights a young man with an uncovered head and a shaved skull, which gave “a particular relief to his physiognomy”, wearing the presidential insignia. While most of those present were looking at the photographer, the more timid ones had their eyes on their boss.

The one who looked at him most insistently was “his double”; sitting next to him, she had her neck turned to “not lose sight of him”. The student with the badges and the student who “devoured him with his eyes” were undoubtedly the boys in the first image, the sons of tailor Max Johannson. The diploma that was with the photographs, written in Latin and signed by Pietr Johannson, attested that the philosophy student Hans Johannson belonged to the Ugala Corporation.

Having discovered the twins, Maigret decides to go to Fécamp, where Pietr's presence has been reported. First, however, he has a conversation with the examining magistrate Coméliau, to whom he shows the first photograph, without arousing much interest. The following words spoken by the commissioner demonstrate that he finally managed to understand the situation. After describing that type of photograph as “terribly eloquent”, Maigret, who wonders why parents and teachers did not immediately realize what “the characters’ fate would be”, declares to the magistrate that he would arrest the boy who “stared at his brother with admiration".

The emphasis given to Pietr's determined gaze and Hans's enraptured gaze demonstrates that, without resorting to any theorizing, Simenon had anticipated the Barthesian concept of “punctum” by fifty years. As one reads in A Camera Lucida, the punctum is a chance that stings the viewer, a detail that attracts or hurts him, endowing photography with a “superior value”. It is precisely in these terms that Maigret reads the eyes of the two brothers, making them the focal points of the images. If the curator conscientiously covers the entire surface of the two photographs, trying to understand the context in which they were produced, however, it is the detail of the looks that attracts his attention due to the fact that it is not intentional and because it is found “in the field of the thing photographed as a supplement at once inevitable and gracious" (Barthes).

Although in reverse, the question of the punctum reappears in Memoirs of Maigret (1951). After registering his discomfort “in the face of an image of ourselves that is not entirely accurate”, the commissioner states: “The lens does not allow for absolute inaccuracy. The image is different without being different. Faced with the evidence they show us, we are generally incapable of putting our finger on the detail that shocks us, of saying what is not us, what we do not recognize as ours”.

Punctured above all by the gaze of Hans, a “partial object” bundled into a “total object” (Barthes), Maigret is finally faced with the story of Cain and Abel in reverse. Captured, Hans tells his trajectory to the commissioner: since he was a child, Pietr abused him, who took pleasure in being treated as a “slave”. When they were in Ugala, Pietr taught him how to forge documents and checks, a task he could not escape over the years. Furthermore, the brother had married, under the name of Olaf Swaan, Berthe, the girl he loved. Tired of the situation, he had smuggled himself onto the train that was taking Pietr to Paris to kill him and take his place. Before committing suicide, he asks to see the photo of the two boys, which he looked at “like a maniac. The commissioner saw her the other way around, but he noticed the blonder boy's admiration for his brother.

Judge Coméliau's indifference to the portrait of the twins further enhances Maigret's perspicacity, capable of transforming the sight of a detail into the definition of two opposing personalities. The difference between theory and practice will be underlined by Simenon in a later book, Death in high society (1960)[8] in which reference is made to an article published in the medical journal The Lancet. In it, doctor Richard Fox stated that “a good professor, a novelist or a detective” was able to understand his fellow men better than a psychiatrist who allowed himself to be “influenced by theorizations”; this idea would come back to the chief inspector during an investigation centered on characters who seemed to belong in the XNUMXth century.

Maigret's “professional eye”, which “attaches to certain familiar details, notices this or that particularity and draws conclusions from there”, can be inserted in a broader framework of references, analyzed by Carlo Ginzburg in the book Miti, emblemi, spie: morphology and history (1986). In the chapter dedicated to “evidential knowledge”, the Italian historian draws a parallel between the connoisseur Giovanni Morelli, who sought authorship of a work in the most insignificant details (earlobes, nails, the shape of fingers and toes), the character Sherlock Holmes, capable of discovering a criminal based on almost imperceptible evidence, and Sigmund Freud, for whom psychoanalysis led to the discovery of “secret and hidden things” from “little appreciated or imperceptible elements, detritus or residues of our observation”.

The idea of ​​a “mark”, present in the three cases studied by Ginzburg in the form of a pictorial sign (Morelli), an indication (Holmes) and a symptom (Freud), also characterizes Maigret's observation, especially if it is remembered that photography is “ result of the trace left by light on a sensitive surface” (D'Autilia).

Equipped almost always with “a photograph, or identification signs, sometimes just a technical description of an ear”[9] and accustomed to the “clash of looks”, Simenon's character fully participates in this culture of deciphering signals that are sometimes minimal, but profoundly significant. The “clash of looks”, which occurs in the physical presence of the criminal, is transposed into pietr le letton for a distance confrontation, without any type of mediation, based solely on the perspicacity of the commissioner and his ability to capture the psychological fragility of one of the Pskov boys. Thanks to the attention given to “evidential knowledge”, Simenon anticipates the Barthesian reading, leaving a question in the air: the author of the camera lucida Would you be a reader of Maigret's adventures?

* Annateresa Fabris is a retired professor at the Department of Visual Arts at ECA-USP. She is the author, among other books, of Reality and fiction in Latin American photography (Ed. UFRGS).


BARTHES, Roland. The camera lucida: note on photography; trans. Julio Castañon Guimaraes. Rio de Janeiro: New Frontier, 2012.

CARLY, Michael. Maigret traversées de Paris: 120 lieux parisiens du commissaire. Paris: Omnibus/Paris Bibliotheques, 2003.

D'AUTILIA, Gabriele. L'indizio e la proof: the story in photography. Milano: La Nuova Italia, 2001.

GINZBURG, Carlo. Miti emblemi spie: morphology and history. Turin: Einaudi, 1986.

SIMENON, Georges. L'amie de madame Maigret. Paris: Le Livre de Poche, 2003.

_______. Maigret. Paris: Le Livre de Poche, 2008.

_____. Maigret is having fun. Paris: Le Livre de Poche, 2007.

______. Memoirs of Maigret; trans. Paul Neves. Rio de Janeiro: New Frontier; Porto Alegre: L&PM, 2006.

_____. Death in high society; trans. Raul de Sa Barbosa. Rio de Janeiro: New Frontier; Porto Alegre: L&PM, 2004.

_______. pietr le letton. Paris: Le Livre de Poche, 2004.


[1] The name is registered in Memoirs of Maigret (1951)

[2] In a 1934 novel (Maigret), Simenon provides a succinct description of this service and records the commissioner's discomfort with the "terrible realism" of the forensic portrayal of a prostitute who was collaborating with him on a parallel investigation.

 [3] Locard creates the first Scientific Police laboratory at the Palace of Justice in Lyon (1910). It uses methods such as ballistics, toxicology and graphometry.

[4] These are postcards that, exposed to a light source, allow you to visualize light effects or filigree inscriptions.

[5] In fact, Madame Maigret spent time in the square before going up to the dentist's office and knew the woman and her young son.

[6] Majestic's characterization draws inspiration from Claridge. Inaugurated in 1919 on the “luxury sidewalk” (Avenida des Champs-Elysées, 74), the hotel represented the “essence of the crazy years”.

[7] There is, however, an interruption when Simenon explains what the Ugala Corporation was.

[8] The original title of the work is Maigret and the old men.

[9] It is possible that such a description was based on the typology established by Bertillon, very similar to the illustrations inserted by Morelli in his articles to prove his attributions.

the earth is round exists thanks to our readers and supporters.
Help us keep this idea going.

See this link for all articles


  • Introduction to “Capital” by Karl Marxred triangular culture 02/06/2024 By ELEUTÉRIO FS PRADO: Commentary on the book by Michael Heinrich
  • About artificial ignoranceEugenio Bucci 15/06/2024 By EUGÊNIO BUCCI: Today, ignorance is not an uninhabited house, devoid of ideas, but a building full of disjointed nonsense, a goo of heavy density that occupies every space
  • Franz Kafka, libertarian spiritFranz Kafka, libertarian spirit 13/06/2024 By MICHAEL LÖWY: Notes on the occasion of the centenary of the death of the Czech writer
  • Impasses and solutions for the political momentjose dirceu 12/06/2024 By JOSÉ DIRCEU: The development program must be the basis of a political commitment from the democratic front
  • Union registrationSUBWAY 11/06/2024 By LAWRENCE ESTIVALET DE MELLO & RENATA QUEIROZ DUTRA: The Ministry of Labor has decided to grant union registration to Proifes. However, union registration is not the same as union representation
  • The strike at federal Universities and Institutescorridor glazing 01/06/2024 By ROBERTO LEHER: The government disconnects from its effective social base by removing those who fought against Jair Bolsonaro from the political table
  • Confessions of a Catholic LadyMarilia Pacheco Fiorillo 11/06/2024 By MARILIA PACHECO FIORILLO: Congenital reactionism is not only the preserve of evangelicals
  • The STF, Artificial Intelligence and the Labor Courtsouto-maior_edited 07/06/2024 By JORGE LUIZ SOUTO MAIOR: The implementation of the replacement of the human being by AI presupposes that it has already been trained to act in the way desired by the ruling class
  • A myopic logicRED MAN WALKING _ 12/06/2024 By LUIS FELIPE MIGUEL: The government does not have the political will to make education a priority, while it courts the military or highway police, who do not move a millimeter away from the Bolsonarism that they continue to support
  • Strengthen PROIFESclassroom 54mf 15/06/2024 By GIL VICENTE REIS DE FIGUEIREDO: The attempt to cancel PROIFES and, at the same time, turn a blind eye to the errors of ANDES management is a disservice to the construction of a new representation scenario