56. Crime Scenes

Alphonse Bertillon’s metric photography of crime scenes, made c. 1903 and currently starring in the show ‘Burden of Proof: The Construction of Visual Evidence’ at The Photographers Gallery in London, reveal a curious fact. The dead, and particularly, it seems, the dead who have died suddenly, unexpectedly and violently, appear -(from a certain Bertillonian angle at least) to be set free of the constraints of living.
In Bertillon’s standardised and scientifically produced documentation the twisted bodies seem to share something with those images made mid-20th century by Philippe Halsman or Richard Avedon, using high speed shutters, flash and models who jumped in the air at the moment of exposure.
Of course the latter are full of life and the former full of death. The latter almost flying while the former are more earthbound than they ever been. And yet, there is a strange similarity, as if photography had revealed, through its especially stilling (you might justifiably add ‘chilling’) mode of representation, the animating human spirit as apparent in both moments of vivacious vitality and in the final escape or evaporation of that same animating spirit.
The Photographers Gallery show is grim in many ways, focusing as it does on the medium’s special relationship to ‘evidence’ as it aspires to truth and fact. Inevitably perhaps violence and death dominates the scene of the exhibition itself and the thoughtful curatorial essay manages to sidestep two of the most obvious potential references. One omission is the work of Weegee (1899-1968) who followed police announcements on a specially rigged car radio so as to arrive at crime scenes with his big press camera and powerful flash  with or even before them.
The other is the well-known observation by Walter Benjamin that the photographs made by Eugene Atget of empty Paris streets resembled crime scenes, even though they featured no figures or obvious signs of distress or transgression.

As with many of the best, and most quoted Benjaminian observations this statement is bequeathed to history for us and for generations who come after us, to make of what we will. Having read Benjamin’s words it may seem impossible now not to see Atget’s photographs thus, and yet Benjamin never spelled out quite what the actual crime or crimes might have been?

As he also claimed that “There is no document of civilisation which is not at the same time a document of barbarism” we could be led to assume that the crime referred to is the crime is modernity itself, and thus Paris, as the first modern city, becomes the scene of that crime, a crime that only photography, and perhaps only Atget (who never sought to make ‘art’ but produced what Benjamin called “standard evidence for historical occurrences”) could reveal.

Photography is in many respects scientific. One of its attractions as a modern art form, process or medium may be the peculiarly programmatic and practical means by which it produces unprecedentedly ‘realistic’ images as the -always surprising- outcome of a technical and chemical procedure. Nevertheless, as can be gleaned from the examples given above, photography’s modern and scientific approach to gathering earthly material data does little to discourage our belief or interest in the mysterious, the magical, things of the spirit and matters of the beyond.

Sadly The Photographers Gallery exhibition about ‘evidence’ never releases its grip on death as its prime focus and motivational force. Like a morbid lodestone photography and death seem irretractably linked.

You can sit on a convenient bench and watch as scores of victims of Soviet paranoia are paraded before you on a screen, people of varying ages who look defiantly into the states official photographer’s lens, on or near the day of their execution, perversely recorded and celebrated by the same organisation that was so eager to execute and remove them from sight forever.

Films made and screened for the Nuremberg trials also feature, as does a documentation of the matching of a skull -buried under a pseudonym- to the photographed face of Nazi war criminal Mengeles. The shroud of Turin also makes an appearance.

You can see digital photography and video used to ascertain the possible murder of Palestinian protestors by Israeil soldiers. Then there are documented outcomes of ‘ordnance’ in scenes drawn from current middle-Eastern wars showing the effectiveness of precision bombs designed to kill the inhabitants of buildings and not destroy the buildings themselves. These are juxtaposed with first world war aerial photographs recording the effectiveness of bombing and shelling fields in and around the Somme. Interestingly however, there is very little in this exhibition to convince you that photography is ever true or clear about the evidence it produces.

Pixillation or the grains of silver halides invariably interfere with detailed analysis of images. Meanwhile  ‘beautifully’ photographed bloodstains, footprints and fingerprints are rendered so aesthetically compelling that it seems to be impossible to regard anything here with an appropriately  dispassionate judgmental eye.

Thus everywhere in this exhibition, based on crime, policing and judgement, conviction eludes us, leaving us once again with belief and perhaps greater confidence in our human tendency and ability to conjure interpretation from and project gestalts on to whatever it is we encounter, making of what we see only that which we might perhaps need to see at that particular moment in our lives or our historical progress as a society.

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