New York

“Police Pictures: The Photograph as Evidence”

With urban crime declining across the country and former prosecutor Rudy Giuliani running the city with an iron hand, the streets of Gotham appear to be safe again—the fruit, we’re told, of unceasing vigilance. It was therefore an appropriate moment for “Police Pictures: The Photograph as Evidence” to arrive in New York from the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, where it was organized by curator Sandra S. Phillips. With more than 150 images, it comprised a dense tableau of crime scenes, executions, victims, and every conceivable stripe of “criminal” (from murderers to opium smokers to political agitators and squatters, to ordinary citizens killed in the Khmer Rouge’s Tuol Sleng prison). The diverse formats on view included wanted posters, face books, forensic diagrams, X-rays and infrared scans, security-camera stills, and tabloid pages. Phillips has gathered the material into such Foucauldian categories as “Race, Heredity and the Criminal,” “Social Perspectives on the Criminal,” “Mug Shots as Evidence,” and “Surveillance and Identity.”

While the show’s title suggests that these images were born in the precinct house, and indeed about half were produced by and for law enforcers, many were generated by journalists (Jacob Riis, Weegee), scientists and pseudoscientists (Harold Edgerton, Francis Galton), and artists (Eugène Atget, Mike Mandel, Larry Sultan). The resulting range of styles and attitudes allows the viewer a broad perspective on the operation of the lens in depicting crime. Applied to forensics, the camera’s monocular clarity (and its legendary inability to lie) adapts well to the search for the facts. The photograph lends itself gracefully to being gridded and numbered for analysis, and “Police Pictures” displayed abundant evidence of its usefulness to statistics, comparative anatomy, anthropometry, racial anthropology, and other endeavors addressing deviancy and normality. The nineteenth-century studies of biology and race, in particular, offer a superior vantage point from which to trace the origins of archaic (to a contemporary-art audience, at least) discourses of truth in photography that continue to empower the image. Ancestors to the modern mug shot, “scientific” images like the frontal and profile shots of first-generation slaves taken for Louis Agassiz (to prove his conviction that Africans and Europeans belonged to distinct species) helped to standardize the objective portrait. The eugenicist Francis Galton employed a similar format to make composites that conflated numerous individuals into a single visage. Galton believed his system of “pictorial statistics” would produce the “ideal typical form” of social groups like murderers, Jews, or consumptives. Then, of course, comes the clincher: once the type was determined scientifically, individuals who conformed to it could be identified out of the English population.

What this tradition reflects is the conviction that moral disorder is visible and measurable. But understanding this premise only complicates our ability to decode the Adams Photographic Cabinet (patented in 1876), which framed hundreds of criminal portraits together in a grid, leaving the viewer to question the decisions regarding inclusion. Are murderers assembled with thieves, with vagrants? At one point, the subjects appear to have been correlated according to their hairstyles; at another, to their clothing.

In the end, “Police Pictures” revealed how all the measuring in the world is merely a tool of the moral agenda of the measurers—and a none-too-efficient tool at that: witness the colorful photograph of the blood-stained walkway of Nicole Brown Simpson’s bungalow. The show argues the case that the image is less valuable as post-facto proof of anything than as an instrument of social control. This refrain echoes in Julia Scher’s Unidentified Police Targets, 1998. Video monitors placed in the gallery’s window facing the street alternated live broadcasts from inside the gallery and across the street in Washington Square Park (long a site of bush-league drug buys). Surely you, innocent gallery-goer, were not a target for observation. But hey, as the pitch goes—you never know.

Kirby Gookin