Check out the Metropolitan Museum’s affecting installation of crime photos before it’s too late

by Olivia Lenius

Ranging from the 1850s to the present, “Crime Stories: Photography and Foul Play” gives the public a look inside the real stories of criminals and their place in history — police records of petty shoplifters in the 1900s, the kidnapping of Patty Hearst, and more.

Nestled into the classic Greek sculpture section at the Met’s Fifth Avenue location are two small rooms painted a solemn grey, covered in photos of morgues and electric chairs. A security guard looks bored, but also vaguely appalled, watching the constant stream of people entering a morbid exhibit with such glee.

The first room documents the first real uses of the camera in the world: documenting criminals and crime scenes. On the walls and in display cases are early mugshots and books filled with pictures and charges, one book focusing solely on female shoplifters. Many mugshots were taken with the Bertillonage technique, a methodical system of recording anthropometric measurements (skull size, scars, and any identifying features) in excruciating detail. There’s even a picture of a man getting his left middle finger measured, just in case. The walls hung with ten different noses, ears, chins etc. gives us a very strange sense of intimacy with these known offenders.

In another, greyer room, we find ourselves among more familiar stories, like the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, and others too brutal to be publicized, like the story of a young boy who shot and killed his two younger sisters in Wisconsin. These renditions of death and the dead eyes of murderers prompts a hush to fall upon the crowd as they enter. From simple mugshots and crimes documented in writing we now see what crime looks like. There’s little gore besides small pools of blood left behind by victims, yet knowing the true fates of the people in these photos is somehow incredibly stirring. One piece that gave me pause was a picture from the ’40s of a husband and wife dead on their living room floor. The wife is positioned as if asleep, peaceful, but the husband is in the background face up, eyes wide, looking terrified. Without knowing what happened, the mind can run away with all the gruesome routes to this sad end, physically and mentally.

Famous visual artists such as Richard Avedon, Walker Evans, John Gutmann, and Weegee then enter the conversation, using their own styles: Andy Warhol’s Pop electric chair at Sing Sing; Avedon’s portrait of the murderer Richard Hickock. Their fascination lets our morbid curiosity feel more natural, appalled security guard notwithstanding.

“Crime Stories: Photography and Foul Play” closes July 31, 2016, so check it out soon.

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