Crimes seen

Photographs taken at crime scenes have become big business. Before television cameras rolled on Courtney Love's running mascara, photographs of Kurt Cobain's body were showing up on tabloid magazines and for sale in the underground press. Now the market has moved to the Internet, where a quick search will reveal numerous chances to buy photographs from famous crime scenes and autopsies--e.g., JonBenet Ramsey, Darlie Routier, and Columbine High School. There are also the vintage crime scenes: infamous mob hits, the Manson family's Tate-Bianca murders, and a plethora of Kennedy (Robert, John F., and John Jr.) shots.

But the appreciation of a well-designed pic of a bloody sidewalk or bullet-ridden body isn't a post-Cops and Faces of Death development. Photography, crime, and death have been linked since cameras and photographic chemicals became available. Matthew Brady led camera crews onto battlefields of the Civil War to photograph bodies, which the photographers often rearranged for better pictures.

Then there was Weegee, the photographer named Arthur Fellig who captured crime in New York City during the '30s and '40s. He arrived at so many crime scenes--snapping away or developing his photographs out of a dark room in his car trunk--that cops began to suspect he was killing people just for the art. He's the king of crime-scene art. Scene of the Crime is a new exhibit at Photographs Do Not Bend that includes two of Weegee's photos. In one, a transvestite sits primly on a bench holding up his wig. Another shows Ramon Serra being arrested in a dirty diner.

Andrew Savulich, who's been called a contemporary Weegee, photographs crime scenes for the New York Daily News. Where Weegee captured the rawness of crime, Savulich finds humor and beauty. Scenes of tragedy are like any other landscape to him. In one of his photographs on exhibition, the body of a woman killed by a rooftop sniper's bullet lies on the sidewalk. Behind her a policeman lurks holding an "I Love New York" souvenir bag. In another, Manhattan's infamous East Side Rapist climbs from a cop car wearing a paper bag over his head with crudely cut eye and mouth holes. Another shows two couples in formal gowns and tuxedos drinking champagne as they watch a jumper on a nearby hotel roof as though they were assembling for a fireworks show.

The new exhibition also includes prints from Jill Freedman's Street Cops, a book of photographs about the New York City Police Department. Her pictures are about capturing the emotion of the scene rather than its macabre or ironic aspects. A cop pushes a door open to discover a homeless man frozen in the hallway. A policeman in full dress blues mourns a fallen colleague in "A Piece of Us All Dies." A cop watches kids pretend murder in "I Hate to See Kids Play with Guns."

But Scene of the Crime doesn't focus solely on New York. Jeffrey Silverthorne makes photographs of two bodies in a prison morgue look like classical portraits, and Edward Weston, a studio photographer known for his shiny and stark works, leaves his nudes and still lifes behind for "Dead Man, Colorado Desert," his 1938 photograph of a body he found during a hike. There are also Associated Press and Acme Newspaper pictures plus several collages of 19th- and 20th-century mug shots.

The mugs all have the traditional front-and-profile style. In some, both pictures are taken at the same time. In others the arrested is wearing a hat in one shot but not the other. The rest have one picture taken when the criminal is booked while the other is taken in prison uniform after haircuts and shaves. Some have descriptions of the people and their crimes. They're plumbers, dressmakers, and bankers sentenced for committing robbery, bigamy, and prostitution. These are even more disturbing than the pools of blood and crumpled bodies. These are normal people, not the World's Dumbest Criminals paraded on television for ridicule.

Shannon Sutlief

KEEP THE DALLAS OBSERVER FREE... Since we started the Dallas Observer, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Dallas, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Shannon Sutlief