This exhibition, which spans 100 years of war, murder and other human atrocities, starts off on the right foot – particularly if your fascination tends towards the morbid. In 1903, Frenchman Alphonse Bertillon introduced the ‘metric’ technique, a new way to objectively capture crime scenes by employing precise calculations and other maths-type measurements. His approach was adopted by police, whose expertly composed God’s-eye-view shots of victims in situ – bludgeoned, strangled, seemingly untouched – are shown here in all their unwavering gruesomeness, and (possibly) unintentional artistry.
In all, ‘Burden of Proof’ offers up 11 ‘cases’, as they are described: examples of ‘experts, researchers and historians’ using photography as evidence after the fact to make an argument for justice or retribution. After compelling early photos by Rodolphe A Reiss of near-indiscernible footprints and other human traces (in 1906 he was appointed the world’s first chair of forensic science at the University of Lausanne), we dip into a study of the now-disproven photographs taken in 1898 of the Shroud of Turin, which apparently held trace evidence of the agony Jesus endured. After this comes a slideshow of faces staring straight into the camera: these are official records of soon-to-be executed victims of the Great Terror of 1930s Russia, during which 750,000 citizens were shot by the Soviet state.
All of it is genuinely affecting stuff. But there’s an inescapable sense that the exhibition is leaning heavily on the harrowing nature of its content, without offering anything beyond a concept-lite framework to bring it all together. This lack of cohesion is strikingly clear from the inclusion of a film about the film, ‘Nazi Concentration Camps’, which was directed by Hollywood legend John Ford and shown at the Nuremberg Trials. It includes some of the horrible scenes encountered by US soldiers during WWII, but it seems we’ve stepped away from a discussion of ‘evidence’ or ‘objectivity’ and into one of film as witness; courtroom as set. Given the nature of this show, a little more attention to detail would have been just the thing.