Photographic Evidence

Julius Caesar, bust

Julius Caesar (photo: William Warby, creative commons license)

On view in New York now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Gilman Gallery is “Crime Stories: Photography and Foul Play” for those whose interest in crime stories goes beyond the fictional to the grittily real. Since its earliest days, photography and other arts have been used to document crime and its purported perpetrators.

In this assemblage, crime-related photography from the 1850s to the present has been assembled from photojournalists, including such auteurs as Diane Arbus and Walker Evans, and a great many more dubious and less artistic sources. The resulting exhibition of some 70 works will be on display through July 31, 2016.

Among the highlights of the installation are such early examples of the genre as Alexander Gardner’s documentation of the aftermath of the assassination of President Lincoln, and rare forensic photographs by Alphonse Bertillon. In the Paris of the late 1800s, detectives throughout Europe and the United States were using Bertillon’s methods—called “bertillonage”—to identify criminals. According to the Met’s website, Bertillon’s system of criminal identification paved the way for the modern mug shot. Psychological research over the decades has failed to eradicate the “common-sense” perception that malefactors can be detected by the way they look.

In the current day, Bertillon’s methods have been displaced by much more scientific measurement and identification techniques, such as modern fingerprinting, iris scanning, and other biometric assessments.

Says the Met, in addition to the photographs on display, the exhibition will feature work by artists who have used the criminal underworld as a source of inspiration. These include Richard Avedon, Walker Evans, Andy Warhol, and Weegee. (Weegee was the pseudonym for a New York City press photographer in the 1930s and 1940s, who developed a very stark, black and white, photojournalistic style and found his subjects by trailing city emergency service workers.)

While many of the works on view may suggest an impulse for artistic debridement of the incomprehensible wounds violence inflicts, New York Times critic Ken Johnson found the exhibition “confused and confusing.” Perhaps that’s because the impulses that lead to crime and its aftermath are not necessarily coherent. They are open to interpretation.

That very confusion at the heart of the matter is part of the fascination. But, see the exhibit, and decide for yourself.