Friday, February 29, 2008

Cyanide and Sin by Will Straw

There are very clear reasons why accidents or crime scenes slow traffic and draw crowds. The viewer in stepping close to death or tragedy looks for clues in which to understand their own mortality. It is a mixture of attraction and repulsion.

People are fascinated with police procedurals like Law and Order because they present stories where the delicate balance of life is disrupted and then satisfyingly restored all within an hour’s time. The outcome of each story may vary but the basis for our understanding is presented in a logical progression of steps that stays a sense of chaos.

In the 1950’s, magazines served as the outlet for people to venture close to the extremes of behavior and come away unscathed. Cyanide and Sin: Visualizing Crime in 50’s America brings together a collection of the covers and content of true crime magazines in a book published by PPP Editions in 2006.

In these magazines, photographers and art directors created scenarios which glorified victims with quick wits and sharp tongues who escape death and the doomed who struggled to hold onto life. This crime and victimization are illustrated with a kind of photographic shorthand that heightens expressivity and creates worlds more akin to popular film than our own. By not solely relying on actual police documents but photographed reenactments, many of the articles could allow the readers to act as witness to the crime as it takes place.

The use of photography tries to convey the authority of truth while bold typography provides a mixture of fact and fiction. The headlines echo catch phrases from movie posters. The Blonde Who Danced With Death. Miss Murder USA. Honeymoon Murder of the Bigamous Bride. Other type declares quotes from the victims or criminals that read like lines lifted from film scripts. “Kill me and get it over!” “I’ll set him up in Lover’s Lane - you follow…” “Why are you killing me Billy?”

Instead of concentrating on high profile criminals or news stories, these magazines directed their attention towards the tragedies of the average citizen. This in turn provided an added dose of intrigue due to the potential for a kind of fame - albeit fame wrapped in tragedy. Many of the covers, as I mentioned employ the same language as movie posters and it takes little imagination to look upon these as suggestive equivalents starring the average Joe or Jane.

Preoccupied with sexualizing female victims, the covers and stories alternate between females as victims and, considering the time period, females that step out of passive roles and into the roles of seductress and murderer. The intention of this imagery was to provide escape from the relentless crush of boredom that the routine of life slips but it also could be viewed from a more sinister angle. The consistent use of imagery that showed bound women and implied sexual assault could be seen as providing perverse content for sexual sadists. By setting sexual titillation alongside feelings of power these brightly colored covers serve as a kind of advertising for an acceptable way for people to entertain darker feelings and urges, yet absolve them of any real quilt.

Cyanide and Sin as a book is a remarkable example of clean and innovative design. It comes covered with a dust jacket which can be unfolded to reveal a large poster illustrated with the magazine cover art. Will Straw provides an interesting essay looking at the history and content of the genre over its century long existence. The production values are top notch with reproductions prepared by Robert Hennessey and production oversight by Sue Medlicott. The added bonus is that all of the covers and content are presented with all of the scrapes, folds and scuffs of the original objects.

This genre of magazine died as it fought for space on racks full to capacity during the 1990’s magazine boom. Their disturbing covers were hidden from view and thus from our consciousness as the everyday man and woman returned their attention towards real celebrities. We read the gossip columns and follow their public tragedies unfold and - like slowing down while passing a car accident - we take perverse enjoyment in seeing them on the pavement.

Book Available Here (Cyanide and Sin)