10 Feb 2006
During the eras marked by Luc Sante’s “Evidence” (1914-1919) and “New York Noir” (mid-1920s onward), the camera changed how we perceived the world. It was a process driven by advances in technology. The halftone engraving process needed to print photos was developed in the 1880s and first used in newspapers on a limited basis in the 1890s. The replacement of glass plates with film and lighter, tougher cameras that did not need a tripod gave photographers greater ability to capture images, and in the 1920s, the tabloids were founded to exploit photography and they quickly became the popular means of disseminating information and titillating newspaper readers. the two books mark the milestones in that process.
The crime scene photos in “Evidence” were discovered by Sante while researching another project in the archives of the New York Police Department. No one, apart from the archivists, knew they existed, and we know very little else about them. We don’t know why they were taken or what use to which they were put. Most of the time, we don’t even know who the victims were, or how they met their fate. They are in the purest sense Roland Barthes’ messages without a code.
A murder investigation freezes a moment in peoples’ lives, opening access into what they eat, wear, think, act, feel. It renders detail as accurately and heartfelt as any good novelist, and it’s all the more powerful for being true. These photos convey the same qualities, with a sharpness that allows us to zoom in on a pack of cigarettes balanced on the bar’s footrest, even the type of newspaper used to light a fire. Although we rarely know how the victims died, we can see what they wore, where they lived, the run-down tenements, the constricted rooms. We see the pennants from a tourist site in Pennsylvania, the illustrations from the magazines, the photos on the mantlepiece, the hat one man hung over the gas pipe used to illuminate his room.
For this book, Sante chose 55 images with an eye toward the revealing detail, and some images contain a blood-spattered poetry about them. The body of the anonymous tough knifed in a tenement hallway fell into a pose that recalls Adam awaiting God’s touch. One victim is in his shroud, a large white cloth wrapped around his head as if he had a toothache, his hands bound in front of him. A pretty young woman was found slouched in a chair, her skirt tucked to reveal one leg, and on the wall above her was hung a stock chromo lithograph of the “dying mother” genre.
But most of these were banal deaths, shot for money, knifed for thwarted love, killed because of an exchange of heated words, and if there’s any regret or justice, they lie far beyond the camera’s frame. These were people who lived, breathed, ate, argued, laughed and cried, died and were forgotten until happenstance and fate led to them existing as ghosts in the pages of a book.
The photos in “Evidence” were not shot for publication, but the ones in “New York Noir” were. These were photos taken for the Daily News tabloid, and in these images, which range in time from the flappers and gangsters of the mid-20s to the rumble kids and husband-killers of the 1950s, you can see images of a society beginning to see itself and straighten its tie.
With their sharp shadows and high contrast, one wonders which came first; did real-life inspire the movies, or vice-versa? The photo of William Turner, slouched on a bench handcuffed to a detective nattily dressed in a suit and vest, topped with a white fedora, could have been a still from “Kiss of Death” or “Murder, My Sweet.” In another, Harry F. Powers — tagged by the paper “The Butcher of Clarksburg” — is laying back on his prison cot, one leg cocked, supposedly telling a detective how he killed five people. It looks like a posed picture. The detective is not taking notes, and is sitting on an upturned box, looking shocked as Powers describes what he did.
By this time, the camera had become such a presence in people’s lives that it becomes part of the scenery, like in the case of George Cvek, a wife-rapist and strangler who hitchhiked around the Northeast. His M.O. was to accept a lift, find out where the man lived, and come back later to assault his wife. What slipped him up was his habit of having his picture taken, usually by the motorists who helped him down the road.
If most of the photos in “Noir” seem so familiar, it’s because we’ve seen this cast of characters repeated reflected in popular culture. There’s murders and murderers, mobsters, juvenile delinquents, petty thieves, good-time girls, and extortionists. The fedoras are worn tilted just-so for rakishness. Everyone smokes cigars and cigarettes. The suspects are hauled into paddy wagons, and some look like they were given the third-degree. The only difference from the characters in Central Casting is that we know the blood is real.
They don’t take pictures like these anymore, and with good reason. Police and journalists are more often adversaries than collaborators, and newspaper editors and readers are much more squeamish about blood than those of a half-century ago. And a person caught in a scandal will find it pays better to get their story out first. You can’t even get thrown out of the White House today for the things these people were caught doing then.
“A photograph is not only an image,” Susan Sontag noted, “it is also trace, something directly stenciled off the real, like a footprint or a death mask.” These photos reflect not only their time, but by freezing a moment in history, we come to see how much we have changed, and how sometimes we have changed very little.