‘Photography and Foul Play’ at the Met

Sandra Bertrand


Since the birth of the camera, professional crime busters, artistic highbrows and amateur shooters have been drawn to the “little black box” like flies to honey.  As a tool for gathering evidence and identifying the bad guy it could be dead-on.  But be prepared.  A visit to “Crime Stories: Photography and Foul Play” currently on exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, something a little darker is afoot.  And before departing, you might well be asking yourself what the act of looking is all about.


Unquestionably, this is one exhibition that gives the viewer plenty to look at.  As a walk along history’s treadmill, it divvies up a rich array of humanity—replete with all its smiles and snarls.  Samuel G. Szabo (1854-61) was an early bird who snagged shoplifters, wife beaters, pickpockets, burglars and highwaymen in his lens, then meticulously placed them in an album with oval cutout frames and descriptions in the finest calligraphy.  Another standout display is attributed to Alphonse Bertillon (1853-1914).  This French criminologist whose cataloging by anthropomorphic measurement was dubbed “Bertillonage” produced summary charts that became the precursors to today’s mug shots.  Rows of foreheads, profiles, ears and the like became a powerful means of identifying the culprits of the day.


Abraham Lincoln’s conspirators are not to be overlooked in this historic pictorial lineup.  In one image, Alexander Gardner’s “Execution of the Conspirators, July 7, 1865” serves up a long-distance view of the guilty.  The onlooker must squint to make out the subjects, positioned on the scaffolding deck of the Old Arsenal prison, seconds before the execution.  As with several of the images, it’s not really about the quality of the print, or the acuity of our seeing, rather the awareness of a moment caught—not to be repeated, or forgotten.



Glass vitrines on display show periodicals such as Finger Print Magazine Report from 1925 and a crudely printed “wanted” sign which announces: “Broke Jail.” 


Booking lineups, mainly from anonymous photographers in the early 20th century, are represented as well and worth a close inspection.  A stout middle-aged woman with three young males (accomplices?) positioned against a black velvet curtain makes an eccentric grouping.  In another, a disgruntled couple is on display—the tallish woman decked out in a fur stole, towers over an uncommonly short man, laughable in his oversized coat.   A second shot shows them hatless and coatless, suddenly vulnerable.


In her oft-quoted book, On Photography, Susan Sontag alludes to the predatory nature of the camera—“it does not kill, but to photograph people is to violate them, by seeing them as they never see themselves, by having knowledge of them they can never have.”  Perhaps it is difficult to arouse the viewer’s sympathy when observing hardened criminals on display but they are, nevertheless, human beings, laid open for our inspection, and in some instances, our judgment. 


We look for clues in these faces, trying to comprehend.  One such image is that of a 12-year-old killer, described  as “Freddy” Scheiderer, Wisconsin farm boy, 8/21/34.  He faces the camera in his dirty overalls and tousled hair with a directness and openness as if there is nothing to hide—in church garb, he could just as easily be a choir boy. 


Another compelling image is a life-sized headshot of Dick Hickock by the much celebrated Richard Avedon.  Here, more than ever, we search for discernible clues in the murderer’s face—the same killer who wiped out the Clutter family of Hutchinson, Kansas.  Many will recall this massacre in the collective American consciousness thanks to Truman Capote’s exhaustive and brilliant account, In Cold  Blood.  Hickock’s lopsided face brings abnormality front center—is there a connection between the physical deformation and the psyche of the killer?


Sometimes there’s the simple fascination with the instrument of death itself, in the form of retribution.  Perhaps even more compelling than an actual gun, the object in question is the electric chair.  Andy Warhol’s screenprint of “old Sparky”—the famous electric chair in Sing Sing—carries a sinister power, obviously not lost on the advertising genius Warhol clearly was.    Alongside it, Tom Hoard’s 1920 photograph for the front page of the Daily News is placed, capturing murderess Ruth Snyder at the moment the deadly current was released.  It’s a blurred, somewhat indistinct image, shot with a camera tied to the photographer’s ankle.


Famous vintage news photographs, all carrying their measure of shock value, are included—John  Dillinger’s feet in a 1934 Chicago morgue, Jack Ruby’s shooting of Lee Harvey Oswald in 1963, and a decade later, Patty Hearst captured in a bank surveillance lens.


Less famous subjects are represented as well, such as 16-year-old Frank Pape, his dumbfounded expression greeting us through the chain link crisscrossing of the police van.  In Pape’s case, it was none other than Weegee, perhaps the most infamous crime photographer of them all, who captured him in the moment.  It’s noteworthy in such an exhibit to mention that Arthur Fellig, aka “Weegee,” was spellbound by the mystery of murder.  All of his work is tawdry and flash-lit, suggestive of film noir.  It was undoubtedly his ability to appear at a crime scene before the police that led to the phonetic spelling of his name, attributed to Ouija, or the board game of prophecy.


Catching subjects unawares was often a signature of the urban sleuthing attributed to Walker Evans.  No one could be better at turning the anonymous everyman into art—in “Subway Passengers, 1938” he snaked a cable release down his coat sleeve to hide the camera, placing the lens between two open buttons of his topcoat. An even cleverer trick was employing a false lens on the camera’s front, with the actual lens on the side, the photographer facing in one direction while photographing from another.  This is the same artist who co-produced the iconic ‘30s Dustbowl study, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, with author James Agee.  He was after a certain naked honesty, yet, nevertheless, understood the secretive and voyeuristic nature of picture-taking.



Seventy works in all are on display, all from the Met’s permanent collection.  It’s not a large show but its impact on the viewer is evident.  Visitors look, pause, walk on, then look again.  It’s really not such a surprising reflex, considering the almost universal fascination of good and evil in the human character. 


Still, it may be helpful after visiting such an exhibit to recall the recent Orlando massacre in a gay nightclub by one more radical terrorist.  That event alone wiped out 49 unsuspecting revelers, and in an attempt not to unduly celebrate the perpetrator over his victims, TV journalist Anderson Cooper made it clear to his audience that in the reading at the subsequent memorial, the killer’s name would not be called.


(This exhibit is on display through July 31, 2016 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1000 Fifth Avenue, New York, NY.)


Author Bio:                                                                                       

Sandra Bertrand is Highbrow Magazine’s chief art critic.


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