Crime may or may not pay, but it sure knows how to grab your attention. So much is made clear by this small show that’s big on gory details, which presents a rogues’ gallery of mug shots, crime-scene photos, tabloid images and works of art illustrating the criminal act’s hold on the imagination. In outlining a history of photography’s relationship with law enforcement, the exhibit reveals just how much the medium has enabled our prurient fascination with murder and mayhem.
Photography followed police work almost from its inception, but its use became standard thanks to Alphonse Bertillon, who began his career as a clerk for the Paris Prefecture of Police in 1879. Tasked with maintaining records, he developed the first modern system of criminal identification. Known as bertillonage, the process involved carefully written descriptions of the accused as well as anthropometric measurements of their features. The latter is depicted with pictures of rough customers being sized up with calipers, though the result looks faintly ridiculous today.
Bertillonage, however, also formalized the use of mug shots. There are earlier examples of the form here, such as Samuel G. Szabó’s 1860 photos of unsavory characters (forgers, pickpockets, wife poisoners and so on), but the solemnity of his subjects diverges from the degrading matter-of-factness we usually expect from such images.
Grimmer curiosities take up other parts of the exhibit, like a 1904 Bertillon photo of an elderly woman lying dead on a floor; a camera on an extended tripod captures her from directly overhead, making her appear to be floating within a shadowy void. A surreptitiously taken shot from 1928 immortalizes Ruth Snyder’s instant of death by electric chair at Sing Sing prison, a moment that would soon scream out from The New York Daily News’s front page. In another image from 1934, John Dillinger’s toe-tagged feet poke out from a sheet at a Chicago morgue.
The camera, then, visualized criminality in ways that simply weren’t previously possible. It could demonize or romanticize outlaws, sometimes simultaneously: An Alexander Gardner 1865 albumen print captures Lincoln assassination conspirator Lewis Powell delivering a piercing stare that’s both unnerving and weirdly compelling. Police photography also impacted 20th-century aesthetics. Film noir, for example, would have been inconceivable without it.
The most relevant image to contemporary viewers, however, may be the CCTV image of Patty Hearst taking part in the 1974 bank heist led by the Symbionese Liberation Army. Relatively new then, surveillance cameras have since been trained on almost all aspects of our lives. While the camera once allowed us the frisson of putting ourselves in the perpetrator’s shoes, it’s now made potential suspects of us all.