The human fascination with crimes goes back hundreds of years. We are usually fascinated by events and actions that are very unlikely to happen; however, despite the fact that many crimes seem distant from the everyday routine life of a peaceful human being, it is real. In addition, curiosity is a driver that often makes us wonder about the most gruesome events that happened in the human history, for example, the Jonestown massacre or the unsolved West Memphis Three murders.
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Given the fascination, crime has also become a subject for modern entertainment like TV shows and documentaries (The Jinx, Making a Murderer, American Crime Story), podcasts (Serial, Criminal, Sword & Scale), and, of course, art or photograph exhibitions. “Crime Stories: Photography and Foul Play” displayed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art is an exhibit which allure is directly linked to human fascination with crime and the ways in which crime is presented through the art of photography.
Preparing myself for the exhibition and for what to expect, I read some guides to crime scene photography as well some general information about the most prominent photographers presented in the exhibit. In general, crime scene photography is not considered artistic, it is pure capturing of specific events, thus, I was not excited at first; however, upon the visit, my opinion has changed drastically.
Photographs Examination and Analysis
To explore the exhibit in detail, I have chosen five photographs that were the most memorable. Larry Clark’s photograph “Armed Robbers, Oklahoma City” (1975, printed in 1981) shows two armed young men that are topless; one of them is smoking a cigarette. By looking at these people, there is no doubt that they are not law-abiding citizens that just decided to play around with toy guns, they are used to them, it is a part of their life.
Their faces are not clear, they are hidden behind a shadow, just like their personalities. In my opinion, this double portrait romanticizes crime and pays homage to the sense of charm that often accompanies the images of criminality.
The second photograph “Human Head Cake Box Murder” (around 1940) by Weegee (Arthur Fellig) is polarly different to the previous portrait. It is a bird-view shot of a group of supposedly forensic detectives that examine a crime scene. Their subject is a decapitated human head, which lies on a pavement next to a cake box. The image is not for the faint of heart; however, it is fascinating in a way it is shot. The bird-view is what makes it visually appealing because there are no clear faces, you can only see figures of men in hats; thus, a viewer wonders about what those men felt at that gruesome moment.
“John Dillinger’s Feet, Chicago Morgue” (1934) shot by an unknown photographer presents a close and shocking nature of death. Even given the fact that John Dillinger was a well-known Chicago gangster and a bank robber, the photo shows that even famous and powerful people are vulnerable to death.
Dillinger’s body is brightly lit to contrast with a deep dark background. Furthermore, the surface, which the body is placed on, is rusty and dirty – a reminder that once a person is dead, he or she is not treated the same way that they are treated when alive. Despite the fact that this photograph is discreet in its content compared to the previously discussed photo, it is striking for its honesty.
The fourth photograph I would like to talk about is “A Robber Aims at a Bank Security Camera in Cleveland” (1975) published by United Press International shows exactly what it says in the title. It is evident that the robber fired a bullet into the camera to hide his identity. Despite the fact that the photo was not taken intentionally, its artistic value is immeasurable. Unclear silhouettes and sepia tones are aspects that make this image different from others in the exhibition, even if it is not as striking as mug shots or forensic photographs. In addition, there is a particular sense of a mystery because a viewer cannot see the face of the bank robber.
The last photo I would like to examine is the bank surveillance camera shot of Patricia Hearst (1974). Patricia or Patty Hearst was a daughter of Randolph Hearst, a newspaper publisher, and her life story was connected with a lot of misfortunate events, including her kidnapping. The surveillance shot caught Patty armed, participating in a bank robbery as a member of the Symbionese Liberation Army.
The image is striking because it depicts a young and attractive woman, a kind of person that is rarely associated with crime; however, it belongs to this exhibition because it is a reminder that crime is real and is universal, anyone could be associated with it. Furthermore, the unclear silhouette of a young woman in an oversized coat attracts attention because it is different to any other photograph – it is both simple and mysterious.
Opinions, Impressions, and Conclusions
When it comes to photography of crime scenes, it has become a valuable forensic tool for identifying and analyzing the scene of the crime. Apart from specifically capturing the crime scene, photographs of crime can be accidental as proven by the exhibition, not all photos were taken intentionally by the author for forensic analysis or other reasons. Photographs included in the exhibition are also snapshots from footage taken from surveillance cameras.
The spontaneity is what makes such shots unique they are not clear in their presentation; however, in some cases, such photographs offer a much more real representation of the events. The light in such photos is uncontrolled, and the scene is not captured fully in the instances like the photograph “A Robber Aims at a Bank Security Camera in Cleveland” when the face of a perpetrator is not seen. On the other hand, carefully prepared crime scene photos with controlled lighting, darkness brightening, and fully captured contents are the ones that attract the most attention.
For example, Weege’s photograph “Human Head Cake Box Murder” looks like as if it was staged by the photographer to make the perfect shot. Although greatly captivating, the carefully taken images seem somehow distant from reality compared to unclear shots from surveillance cameras.
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“Crime Stories: Photography and Foul Play” is a meticulously curated collection of photographs that all put forward a message that crime is multi-faceted, it does not only involve sinister images of dead bodies or angry at life criminals, it also affects the lives of young men and women that descended from their life paths. However, I would like to point out that the most gruesome photographs are the most alluring and captivating, which supports the fact that human beings will always be fascinated with the darkest and the most horrifying events.