Crime Stories: Photography and Foul Play @Met

JTF (just the facts): A total of some 70 photographic works, variously framed and matted, and exhibited on the walls and in three vitrines in the three connecting spaces of the Howard Gilman Gallery on the museum’s second floor. The works consist mainly of gelatin silver prints with the following exceptions: 2 tintypes; numerous gelatin silver prints with applied color; 2 salted paper prints from glass negatives; 4 albumen silver and gelatin silver prints; an albumen silver print from a glass negative; an ink on paper poster with three albumen prints from glass negatives; several photomechanical reproductions; a screenprint; and a halftone reproduction mounted to cardstock. (Installation shots below.)

Comments/Context: There is nothing to fault about this well-chosen selection of crime photographs, books, broadsheets, and magazines except that it is rather quaint and badly out-of-date. Drawn from the Met’s collections, and assembled as a group effort by the photography department curators, the examples reveal the genre’s longstanding involvement in stereotyping, as well as in the culture of celebrity, the apprehension of bad guys and gals, and the gathering of facts by law enforcement agencies, here and abroad.

For most of the 20th century, museums were reluctant to exhibit crime photographs, much less buy them. Except for certain works deemed important as historical documents, such as Alexander Gardner’s series on Lincoln’s assassins, pictures of rapists and shop lifters lacked the proper credentials to qualify as art. Much as dime novels of pulp fiction were once shunned by literary critics, so images of blood puddles in hallways and dead bodies on the street were edited out of mainstream publications.

Then, just as William Faulkner, Patricia Highsmith and other novelists of higher ambition cleaned up the reputation of crime fiction, so did Alfred Hitchcock and film noir turn murder into entertainment for a mass audience. The respect shown for Weegee’s fearless voyeurism by Diane Arbus and Larry Clark, and the adoption of the tabloid style by Warhol and other Pop artists—boosted by their collective ascendance in the art market during the 1990s—has effectively trampled fences that once separated all sorts of high and low photographic styles.

Several books in the last 40 years have further shaped our appreciation for crime and photographs. The anonymous industrial images collected in 1977 by Larry Sultan and Mike Mandel were titled Evidence, with good reason. Each one seemed embedded with clues to some ludicrous mystery. Luc Sante took the same title for his 1992 collection of NYC crime scene photos from 1914-18, a time when large-format cameras perched at odd angles rendered bodies with a lurid, almost Expressionistic distortion and violence. In 2001 Eugenia Parry’s Crime Album Stories, Paris 1886-1902 used a group of graphic photographs, many taken by Alphonse Bertillon, as the basis for fictional stories about the seediness of urban life in the French capital at the turn-of-the-century.

The sensibilities of these artists and scholars are reflected in this show. The deadpan photograph by Detrick from 1972 of a New York plainclothes detective in a sport coat pointing to a bullet in the wall could be one of the Joe Schmoes from Sultan and Mandel’s book. Archival materials from Alphonse Bertillon’s late 19th century criminal investigations are highlights here. On the walls are some of his charts to aid in identification—a catalog of suspected anarchists, a typology of scars, measurements of the left index finger, morphologies of ear and mouth differences. In a vitrine is an album of crime photos that inspired Parry’s imaginings. Critical opinion about the Parisian sleuth and his boundless faith in photography as a modern crime-fighting tool has see-sawed over the decades. Once dismissed as a pseudo-scientific crank and a right-wing bigot, he can now be viewed more sympathetically as a pioneer of Big Data and of facial recognition software.

The theme of the show allows curators to pull out seldom-seen prints from the collection and insert them into an unfamiliar context. John Gutmann’s photograph from 1938 of graffiti on a wall—“X Marks the Spot where Ralph will Die”—sounds the note of violence undercut by humor that prevails in the rooms. (The scrawled message was likely intended to be read less like a tangible threat than like a joke for the whole neighborhood to savor.)

When filling out a line-up for a show like this, Weegee is almost too predictable a candidate. Nonetheless, the examples here are unusual and smart. His formal ingenuity and macabre professionalism can be seen in a photograph from 1940 for a story the newspapers labeled the Human Head Cake Box Murder. It must have taken some maneuvering (or perhaps a bribe to a building’s super) for him to find an overhead angle so that he could picture the cluster of detectives from above. In hats and overcoats, and fanned out like a hand of cards, they are standing and watching the official police photographer under his dark cloth aiming his camera. Weegee shows us in enhanced detail where it is aimed: at a decapitated head resting against an iron girder.

He made his name by knowing what we—and certainly his employer, and probably the cops, too—were there to look at in a photograph, even if none would care to admit it. He seldom missed the money shot.

Outlaws were glamourized long before the invention of photography, but its popularity facilitated the instinct for self-promotion. An 1892 tintype of the “Wild Bunch” and a dual portrait by Larry Clark from 1975, of two young bare-chested armed robbers posing with their pistols in a motel room, shows that the current fashion of criminals willingly advertising their status and their misdeeds has been going on for decades.

What’s missing from Crime Stories is any discussion of the ways the genre has changed (and has not) in the last 50 years. The Clark photo is the most contemporary item here. There are only two pictures here of a crime in progress, both stills from video feeds: one is the 1974 icon of Patty Hearst/Tania, sporting a beret and shotgun, as she helped her fellow members the Symbionese Liberation Army to rob a bank; the second is of an anonymous bank robber raising the muzzle of his machine gun at the nosy security camera.

Although both images gesture toward the future, predicting how the installation of cameras would transform the gathering of evidence—as they have moved from bank interiors to street corner lampposts to drones hovering in the sky—two examples of security video dating from more 40 years ago are hardly sufficient.

It may be that the Met has not collected anything more recent, which is not a point in its favor. Have the curators not yet figured out which department should handle images from digital video and camera phones? Or is there executive resistance toward treating them as art?

A number of prints here—an electric chair from 1971 by Warhol, and a 1960 portrait of Dick Hickock (one of the killers from In Cold Blood) by Richard Avedon—are now so safe for an art museum to exhibit that whatever friction they once embodied has been worn away. The curators at least might have brought history closer to the grittier present with an example or two from contemporary Mexican crime photographer Enrique Metinides or the Swiss police photographer Arnold Odermatt or mentions of The Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death by Corinne May Botz.

Any photograph can eventually become a harmless curiosity. Scenes of the grisliest slaughter may be studied with an attitude of detachment, provided enough time has passed since the recorded event and the viewer has no blood or emotional ties to the slayers or the slain. During the 1920s and ‘30s, as Prohibition and the Great Depression led to a surge in gang warfare across the country, New York publishers and Hollywood producers took advantage of the public’s fascination with the vicious killings and mass executions. A magazine spread here on the 1929 the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre in Chicago, a photograph of the toe tag on John Dillinger’s corpse, and a copy of Fingerprint and Identification Magazine, No. 2, hint at the appetite for sensational news about true crime.

These examples are comfortably embalmed in the past, however, the shock of their original impact absorbed and even fictionalized in entertainments, such as Billy Wilder’s Some Like It Hot, where the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre is the impetus for a comedic plot about cross-dressing.

Not so funny is the failure of the show to explore the many ways that images of violent crime have influenced events. The examples from the 1960s presented here—Robert H. Jackson’s photograph of Jack Ruby shooting Lee Harvey Oswald, and Boris Yaro’s close-up of the dying Robert F. Kennedy—did not have wider repercussions on the body politic. Whereas numerous photographs and videos in recent years have had lasting national consequence, most famously the shadowy sight of a fallen Rodney King being beaten by the LAPD in 1991, and in the last few years the fatal shootings of civilians by police in Cleveland, North Charleston, Cincinnati, and Chicago. On the international stage, ISIS has documented its countless acts of murder and torture, then proudly broadcast these war crimes on the Internet for the world to see.

Such images may be too hot and unfiltered for a museum like the Met to touch and defend as art. But one or two—or even a glimpse of the World Trade Center towers in flames—could have underscored the point that photographs of violent crime often provoke raw emotions and are not always so cauterized from the anxieties of contemporary reality as most of this show’s bemusing examples from decades past would suggest.

Collector’s POV: Since this is a museum show, there are of course no posted prices, and given the diversity of work on view in this group show, we will forego our usual analysis of individual photographers, gallery representations, and secondary market histories.

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Read more about: Alexander Gardner, Alphonse Bertillon, Andy Warhol, Diane Arbus, John Gutmann, Larry Clark, Richard Avedon, Weegee (Arthur Felig), William Klein, Metropolitan Museum of Art

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JTF (just the facts): Published in 2022 by Hatje Cantz (here). Hardcover (22.10 x 31.00 cm), 128 pages, with 90 color reproductions. Includes an essay by Siri Hustvedt. Graphic design by ... Read on.

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