New York City’s Metropolitan Museum of Art has an exhibit currently on view in its Howard Gilman Gallery called “Crime Stories: Photography and Foul Play,” which acknowledges the artistic appeal of crime-scene and police photography. The exhibit itself is small, 70 works, but worth seeing for it’s curated selection of important crime photographs. There are also a few examples of contemporary art that have been inspired by crime documentation, such as pieces by Richard Avedon and Andy Warhol.
The photos range in age from the 1850s to the present, and most are either in sepia or black-and-white. The lack of color in the images lessens any gory impact of blood stains, and gives the pictures the feeling of old movie stills.
Some of the images are mug shots, and others from when different types of records of physical traits of criminals were kept. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, prisoners were not only photographed, but measurements were taken of various body parts and their physical descriptions were annotated, including any scars and tattoos. One intriguing image is a French collection of various physical traits for reference in describing prisoners.
A photo entitled “Automobile Murder Scene” by an unknown photographer from 1935, showing a woman’s stockinged feet, has almost the atmosphere of a fashion editorial image, but instead is a freeze-frame of a tragic event in someone’s life.
Renowned crime photographer Weegee, whose real name was Arthur Fellig, is represented with a 1940 photograph with the catchy and quirky title, “Human Head Cake Box Murder.” The image captures a view facing down on onlookers and another photographer as they confront the discovery of a human head inside a cake box.
Some of the images weren’t even taken deliberately
by a photographer, but are stills from security-camera footage, such as a famous picture released by the FBI in 1974 of kidnapped newspaper heiress Patty Hearst participating in a bank robbery with her Symbionese Liberation Army captors.
One of the more shocking photographs on display is of convicted murderer Ruth Snyder being electrocuted at Sing Sing prison in Ossining, New York in 1928. Cameras were not allowed in the room where executions took place, but journalist Tom Howard snuck in a miniature camera strapped to his ankle and managed to capture a blurry but sobering image of the event. The New York Daily News reproduced the sensational photo on its front page for two days in a row. Not only is the photograph part of this exhibit, but one of the Daily News covers is also on display, as it was found within the pages of the scrapbook of artist Walker Evans, who collected images of violence. He saved this picture of Snyder’s execution along with two other images of electric chairs, which are also hung in this exhibit.
There is also a photograph of a scrawled letter to the editor of a newspaper containing a tip about a murdered child, Billy Gaffney, from 1927. The tip described the killer as a short man who did it for money. Seven years after the crime was committed, notorious child killer and confessed cannibal Albert Fish, who was tall, confessed to Gaffney’s murder, and, as the museum’s text accompanying the photo says, Fish “had apparently not been motivated by money.”
Walking through this gallery of images of criminals, death, and violence is intense, and not for everyone. But anyone with an interest in crime history or the history of photography will find it interesting and worth a look. The exhibit is on display through July 31.
Read more: Metropolitan Museum of Art
Main photo: “John Dillinger’s Feet, Chicago Morgue, 1934,” Bettman/CORBIS, Courtesy the Metropolitan Museum of Art