Theo Wenner, Homicide

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2022 by Rizzoli (here). Hardcover (9.5×12.5 inches), 208 pages, with 80 color photographs. Includes an essay by Michael Daly. Design by Studio Lin. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Homicide is also available in a special self-published edition (available at Dashwood Books here). This version is printed entirely on newsprint in the form of a tabloid newspaper and comes in a custom-made box (12×15 inches). Design by Studio Lin. In an edition of 100 copies, signed and numbered.

Comments/Context: The photographic genre of crime scene documentation has been popular since Weegee’s grisly crime scene shots of New York city and Enrique Metinides’ bloody scenes of Mexico City. And naturally, a number of great photobooks have focused on the world of criminal investigation and the work of police officers. Jill Freedman spent four years embedded with the police in two Manhattan precincts, and published the series in Street Cops. Luc Sante’s classic book Evidence showed images from the brutal crimes of New York city. And A Criminal Investigation was based on images by Watabe Yukichi and followed detectives as they tried to solve a mysterious murder committed in Japan in 1950s. 

A recent photobook, simply titled Homicide, by the New York born and based photographer Theo Wenner offers a more contemporary window into the behind-the-scenes work of NYPD detectives. Wenner spent two and a half years documenting the homicide squad of Brooklyn’s 90th Precinct, a district of New York with one of the highest murder rates in the city. The series started as a photo essay commissioned by Rolling Stone, and Wenner followed detectives “into crime scenes and across the arc of investigations.” Wenner said, “It’s such an interesting subculture with so many traditions, codes and things that are passed down from generation-to-generation — with the way they do their work, the way they dress, the way they talk, the culture.”

As a photobook, Homicide is medium sized with a glossy cover, with the title and the artist’s name embossed at the very top in a white font. The image on the front captures a bullet laying on a tile floor and extends to the back cover showing a shined shoe and a tiny drop of blood. The cover and the title right away prepare us for the graphic content of the book.

Inside, most of the photographs are printed full bleed, creating an immersive and uninterrupted visual flow. An essay by Michael Daly, a special correspondent with The Daily Beast, appears at the very end, printed on newsprint paper. The text columns are printed across the gutter, a fine design decision (although they slightly mismatch). A photo index includes thumbnails and captions providing more details for each photo. Flipping through the pages and smelling the scent of the ink adds physicality to the photobook experience. 

Wenner followed various detectives into crime scenes, spent time at their offices, and also joined them during their downtime. His photographs, eerie, blurry and often shot with little light, focusing on their personal details, their daily routines, their in-between-moments, and the overall atmosphere. The captions in the back provide additional details about the crimes the detectives had to tackle: a quadruple shooting in Bedford-Stuyvesant, a drug dealer shot inside his apartment, a woman murdered with an axe by a jealous boyfriend, a male shot in head on the stairwell he was squatting. As the narrative unfolds, we follow the detectives as they inspect the crime scenes, question witnesses, interrogate suspects, and analyze the available evidence. Wenner’s photographs offer a rare, not made-for-television glimpse into the gruesome yet fascinating world of criminal investigation. 

The book opens with an image of a group of men standing outside a building entrance on a rainy night, with the letters NYPD appearing on one jacket, signaling suspense and dark mood. A couple of pages in, a vertical photograph shows a calendar outside an office reading “days since last murder in the 75” with “0” under it, while a blurry silhouette of a lieutenant appears in the background. Wenner then goes on to capture a group of detectives at their squad office, in a car, in an interrogation room, collecting statements from witnesses, on the rooftop looking for evidence, and ultimately chugging whisky in a bar after their shift. 

There are also graphic shots of gruesome blood-splattered crime scenes, covered dead bodies, blood-soaked Nike Air Jordans, zipped up body bags, narrow hallways smeared with blood, and a bunch of orange cones covering shell casings. In one image, a detective reviews surveillance footage of a double stabbing inside the front entrance of an apartment building, with a bloody scene appearing on his computer screen. In another shot, the crime scene unit in white protective jumpsuits collects evidence on the stairwell. In many of his blurred images, Wenner is clearly trying to capture the moment while staying out of the way of the ongoing investigation. 

All of these crimes happen against the backdrop of NYC: the sparkling lights over Brooklyn’s night skylines, the front of a deli on a rainy night, a snowy New York winter, each scene adding to the atmosphere of the city. The photographs were taken just a couple of years ago, yet it feels like they take us back to the 1970s or 1980s. The dated old style offices, the muted colors, and particularly the way detectives dress, with fedora hats and suits, doesn’t feel recent. 

Wenner works as a fashion photographer and he brought his intimate sensibility to the project, creating a cinematic and even romantic portrait of these NYPD detectives. Colors play an important role in the series (also offering an alternate perspective, as the crime genre is usually shot in black and white) – the precinct and interrogation rooms have strong green hues, while a number of portraits appear in soft red. 

The very last photograph shows detective Jimenez in his car late at night, as he’s just arrived at a fresh homicide – the work of Brooklyn detectives continues. As a photobook, Homicide stands out with its thoughtful design and its distinct language of color, and succeeds in its quest to immerse the viewer into an unsettled atmosphere of the NYC crime scene. It also reminds us that these detectives are very real people, who have to deal with gruesome realities on a daily basis and still do their best to keep the city safe. 

Collector’s POV: Theo Wenner is represented by Art Partner in New York, Paris and London (here). His work has not yet found its way to the secondary markets, so gallery retail remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.

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