Wednesday, June 1, 2016

"Crime Stories": A Photo Exhibit at the Met Museum

The current exhibit at the Met Museum, Crime Stories: Photography and Foul Play, is not particularly large - it takes up only one gallery - but is still worth a visit for anyone with an interest in documentary photography.  The works shown here are all drawn from the museum's permanent collection and, as the museum's website notes, constitute a "rogues gallery" of underworld figures, some notorious and others anonymous.

The most interesting photos here are the crime scene photos; even after so many years they still possess a macabre fascination for the viewer.  The most famous examples of this genre were of course taken by Weegee.  On view is his Human Head Cakebox Murder in which the spectators are photographed from such an angle that they themselves appear headless.  But there are others of equal impact, such as a photo of a man who died from a drug overdose stretched out in a Bronx hallway so narrow the photograph by Leonard Freed had to be taken from the staircase above, thus unwittingly providing a unique point of view.  Another photo, taken of the corpse of a knife wielding man shot dead by police in the Bronx, has connotations that would not have occurred to its original viewers.- seen now, one cannot help wondering if the knife were placed in the dead man's hand by the police after he had been killed.  Then there are the sensationalist photos of Ruth Snyder dying horribly in the electric chair at Sing Sing and a photo of a "girl resembling" Patti Hearst robbing a bank in California.  One of the best shows a robber firing his gun directly into the lens of a surveillance camera in a failed attempt to disable it.

As one would expect, there are a number of photos related to political assassinations, the crimes that have always been most thoroughly covered by the media. There are photos of the gun that killed Robert Kennedy, the famous photo of Jack Ruby gunning down Lee Harvey Oswald, and the scene of the hanging of Lincoln's assassins.

The exhibit also contains work by well known photographers who were inspired by crime and its perpetrators.  These are of mixed quality.  Work by Walker Evans, William Klein, Larry Clark, and even Andy Warhol seem out of place here.  The exception is Avedon's penetrating portrait of In Cold Blood killer Dick Hickok, taken at the request of friend Truman Capote, that is absolutely chilling.  Like the anonymous portrait of 12-year old Freddie Scheiderer who shot to death his two sisters, the photo is frightening precisely because its subject is so ordinary - he could have been any one of us.

The least interesting photos - though given the most prominence, both at the exhibit itself and on the museum's website - are mugshots, including the posed portraits taken by Alphonse Bertillon.  These lack drama, and the subjects themselves are too conscious of the camera to expose their true personalities to it.

The exhibit continues through July 31, 2016.

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