What I'm Reading: How Crime Photography Changed the Way We Understand Crime

"If photographs are supposed to freeze time, these crystallize what is already frozen, the aftermath of violence, like a voice-print of a scream.Their subjects are constantly in the process of moving toward obliteration. It is death upon death, from animal to document." - Luc Sante


The strange world of crime photography: Dark, Dangerous, Eerily captivating.


Photography, like painting or writing, is often seen as an art. Rightfully so. Images are beautiful. They can transport the viewer to another time, another place, another emotion. Even the casual photographer takes to the streets with in intent to make art hidden somewhere in the back of their mind. A crime scene photographer on the other hand...probably hopes, prays, their work will never qualify as "art."

Images: Human Head Cake Box Murder, 1940 (Left, Top if Mobile); Armed Robbers, Oklahoma City, 1975 (Right, Bottom if Mobile)


Prior to crime scene photography, investigators relied on the power of paper and pen, audio recordings and, in some instances, their imperfect memories. Imagine the subtle nuances lost through these antiquated means of cataloging the scene. What of the crucial elements which, for some reason or another, may not have come into consideration until later in the investigation? The position of the hands, a candy wrapper on the sidewalk, a curious looking bystander. Key elements lost before ever making it to paper or audio. Elements which would have, with time, become incomplete or inaccurate memories.


We'll never know for sure how many crimes have been solved with the help of a camera. How many guilty parties convicted? How many innocents set free? Questions aside, we have certainty in the power of the camera and the images it can produce. In the right hands, a camera becomes a tool. For some this tool is a paintbrush, allowing them, like a masterful artist, to paint visions of happiness, beauty, and wonder. For others, this tool helps them capture the damning evidence needed to put the extremely wicked, shockingly evil, and vile behind bars.

Image: Murder of Madame Veuve Bol, 1904


If this short musing has piqued your interest, I highly recommend reading the whole Popular Photography article here.

Washington, D.C., USA 

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©2019 by Taylor Mackay