Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Three books on crimes and deviant behavior

Those of us who have been buying books in the days well before the internet have all heard stories of great book finds. Some of my own include a $5.00 copy of Eggleston’s Guide (1st ed) from a vender on St Marks Place in NYC back in the pre-Gulliani years when it wasn’t a felony to put a blanket on the sidewalk and sell your goods. On three separate occasions at the Strand Bookstore, I found a copy of Women Are Beautiful (paperback) for $6.00 each. I once found a $1.00 copy of Winogrand’s The Animals in the “pets” section of a bookstore in Maine.

A friend of mine has his own Eggleston story of coming across a copy of the Guide laid out on some garbage bags in front of his apartment building on the upper Westside of Manhattan. Some books seem to be willed into your possession.

Those types of discoveries happen less and less due to the information proliferated on the internet, although they do happen. I bought a $10.00 copy through Ebay’s Buy It Now option of Robert Frank’s Lines of My Hand (1972 Lustrum softcover) from a woman in Ohio. When my conscience got the best of me I sent her one of my prints along with the ten bucks.

My best finds though have not been books but photographs and ephemera. While living on 35th street and 9th avenue down the street from the New Yorker hotel building, I found the contents of an office being tossed into a 20 foot long garbage dumpster. Upon closer inspection of some of the boxes, I discovered they were full of case files from a detective agency. Being that it was dark and starting to rain, I grabbed what I could carry and ran back to my apartment. After seeing what I had, I am still kicking myself for not going back into the storm for more.

The reports were mostly surveillance of an outfit called the Good and Tasty Snackbar Corporation. Apparently they hired the services of this agency to report on which employees were stealing money from the cash registers. What was interesting to me was that the reports were from 1955 and 1956 and the two locations of stores under surveillance were Times Square and the snackbar on the Staten Island Ferry.

These reports read in very photographic ways. Each is a record of the events that took place within a 3 or 4 hour timeframe in which the detective sat in the snackbar and observed.

“Waitress ‘A’ took twenty-five cents for a cheeseburger but only rang fifteen cents into the register.”

“Waitress ‘G’ dropped the rag on the floor she was wiping down the counter with, and didn’t wash it before wiping down the juicer.”

There were a few other types of reports centered around marital infidelity cases. They describe a few individuals being shadowed around New York in the late 1950’s. They record the license numbers of taxi cabs and locations of dance halls and the addresses of the hotels where lonely wives ducked out to meet lovers. One was accompanied by a rapidly composed photo of two startled, bleary eyed people in bed.

But mostly these are about the writing and the images you conjure in your head. The writing is straight forward and utilitarian. It records only the facts, much in the way that photographs do.

This brings me to the three books that are featured in this post. All three are about photographs whose purpose was the strict recording of fact without any artistic intentions. (Correction: I assume that there were no artistic intentions) All, in a sense were "found" or "saved" as for most, they were discarded once they "lived" past their usefullness.

The first book is Scene of the Crime: Photographs From the LAPD Archive published by Abrams in 2004. There have been several of these types of crime scene photo books published in the past dozen years (Evidence, Shots in the Dark, Death Scenes) but this one I think is the best of them. (Note: Luc Sante’s book Evidence would win out but it is so poorly printed I have to pass it up)

Scene of the Crime includes over 130 photographs of murders, suicides, car accidents and evidence photos. It is a little design heavy but it works well and the choice of imagery is not just a gore-fest, but includes many images that are amazingly constructed. The paper stock and printing is a good match.

The imagery borders on the surreal at times. In one image, long looping lines of blood trace an odd signature on a flower patterned carpet with no body in sight. This photo in particular probably includes one of the most beautiful descriptions of a rocking chair I’ve ever seen. Obviously this was not the point of the photo but one notices the “accidental” proficiency of the photographer in many of these images.

Another, which is my favorite, is a photo of a broken hammer (reproduced in my composite photo). The photo is disturbing as our minds wonder at the use of this object in a crime. Perhaps it was murder, there is a letter M etched into the handle after all. This photo is so straight forward yet plays with our perceptions in the way that the broken pieces are askew enough as to not line up in the way our minds might want them to. If it were a sculpture, it might be displayed in the same museum gallery as Jasper John’s coffee cans or Duchamp’s bicycle wheel.

Not all of the photos are great or even good in this volume, but enough are good to call into question whether in situations like these does it matters being an experienced photographer or will the naive amateur get lucky enough to do the job? Obviously the professional will produce a better body of work in the long run but if it is an individual picture that counts, photography has a way of evening out the odds between the those two types of practitioner.

If in Scene of the Crime we are shown the crimes after they’ve been committed, in Least Wanted we see the culprit after he or she has been placed under arrest. This is a volume of police mug shots made over a hundred years. It was published in 2006 by Steidl and Stephen Kasher Gallery in NYC.

One of our earliest examples of a mug shot probably is of the men who conspired to assassinate Lincoln, most notably, the wonderful Alexander Gardner photo of Lewis Powell. That photograph exists as a great portrait in the same ways that many of the images in this book do.

(This image is not in Least Wanted)

What I like the most about this book is that it celebrates the photographs as object. Many mug shot cards are not just a photo but also records of information comprising finger prints and written descriptions of the person’s criminal history. This book reproduces many different types of these seductive objects. This is a rouges gallery of hundreds of hastily made portraits that at times elicit strong responses.

One section of the book describes the application of the Bertillion Indentification System which was supposed to “identify” the criminal type by way of physiological characteristics that could be measured and cataloged. Wanted posters often included these Bertillion Measurements in their descriptions.

These mug shots point out and make record of all of the physical and emotional characteristics that make each of us an individual. In essence, what makes us “identifiable.” But instead of “criminal types”, we actually wind up with a complete cross section of America over a century of time.

The last title is Harms Way: Lust & Madness, Murder & Mayhem published by Twin Palms in 1994. This book was edited by Joel Peter Witkin and his fascination with the human body, abnormalities, deformities, psychology and medical procedures is at the forefront. This book reads as more of a self portrait of Witkin than anything else.

If Least Wanted implies a cross section of the American face, then Harms Way shows us a 180 degree view from the norm. Mostly pulled from the Stanley Burns achive and the Kinsey Institute, the photographs here represent the extremes as one might expect from Witkin. Beyond the photographs of murder, which are actually surprisingly tame compared to the other chapters, this book tests your belief to the validity of many of the images of deformities. The section on lust is mostly comprised of the physical aspects of sexuality. Bondage, submission, bodily modification, cross dressing are all represented here.

The book is very poorly printed which is unusual for a Twin Palms production. I think in an attempt to recreate the tonalities of the actual objects something has gone terribly wrong. The images are contrasty, severly blocked up in the lower tonalities and at times are barely readable. Perhaps with subject matter this disturbing, that may not be such a bad thing.

In keeping with the thought of found objects, the above photos were found by me in a dumpster on 26th street and 7th avenue in Manhattan NYC in 1994. They were a set of cards, of which I found 34 different ones, documenting prosthetic limbs.

Book Available Here (Harms Way)

Book Available Here (Least Wanted)

Book Available Here (Scene of the Crime)