1. There is something uncannily familiar about this view. It’s as if you’ve been here before.
2. But probably the familiarity is generic. You’ve experienced a scene resembling this one. In photographs, necessarily.
3. The immediate details are not in question, although you know all these items intimately. Here you know the setting from life and the cars from the movies, as if the memory of your actual youth was beginning to drift backwards into history.
4. It’s a landscape that makes sense to you, a place you could just enter and inhabit. You know that sort of garage, even that kind of tenement, although nowadays they are probably hidden under asphalt or vinyl siding.
5. Or here, you take in a scene that is clearly outside your experience. This is what trash looked like before plastic, wood, metal, brick, maybe rubber tubing. Even so, you are familiar with the trash-strewn backyard; the details dissolve in the overall effect.
6. You imagine, rightly or wrongly, that the pictures were taken in New York City. Something about proportions, primarily. Architecture, too, but architecture that is to a greater or lesser degree dictated by scale, New York City being more constricted than other cities.
7. But there is something else going on here. Look at the scale of these pictures, their depth, their focus on an unoccupied middle distance. It is as if each of them is a stage set for a play that has been and gone or maybe has not yet occurred. In each of these pictures what is most notable is a central lack, an absence, a void.
8. In other words, these are scenes of crimes. As a photographic subject, the scene of a crime is unusual in that its presence can be embodied in its absence. To hijack Randall Jarrell’s definition of the novel, a crime scene photograph is an unremarkable depiction of an unremarkable view that has something wrong with it.
9. Very often the only hint we have that a photograph depicts a crime scene is that the subject is of such a staggering banality that it would be difficult to think of any other reason for its photographic depiction.
10. Sometimes the image teases the eye, suggesting clues that may well dissolve upon closer examination. Sometimes the focus is deliberate and concentrated, but it is not always clear when it is simply the result of ineptitude.
11. Sometimes crime scene pictures can resemble nature photography, but without the presence of nature. Very often the scene is as near to a blank canvas as is possible without fading entirely into nothingness.
12. When Walter Benjamin compared Atget’s photographs of city streets at dawn to crime scenes, he was primarily referring to the similar quality of absence. But there is a difference. Atget’s subjects are of interest in themselves; his pictures are unpopulated so that the viewer will not be distracted from the aspect to which he wants to draw the viewer’s attention.
13. In these pictures, on the other hand, there is no such inherent interest. The point of focus can only be on what is missing. It is a bit like Sherlock Holmes’s dog who failed to bark.
14. Each of these photographs is a signpost, featuring a giant illuminated arrow pointing to an empty field. If you come upon such a picture, bereft of any context, you will find yourself helplessly looking for a clue, a hidden statement, a punchline.
15. You will ransack your mental image bank looking for precedents. You will pick up and discard snapshots and film stills that perhaps connect on matters of randomness and architecture but to very different effect.
16. You will consider social documents, such as the chronicles of tenement life made at the beginning of the twentieth century by such photographers as Jacob Riis, Lewis Hine and Jessie Tarbox Beals, but human beings were never absent from those pictures.
17. You will think of the sort of pictures made to advertise or document real estate, but, like any advertising use of the medium, those are pictures meant to flatter, a task at which these photographs utterly fail.
18. You may remember seeing pictures taken for tax surveys, although those tend to home in on some specific sorts of information and favor a broad scale over a narrow focus.
19. Even assuming that the inhabitants of these spaces owned cameras, it seems unlikely that they would have taken this sort of picture for their own amusement or nostalgic contemplation.
20. And although it is not utterly out of the question that the press might have taken an interest in some of these scenes, the pictures are simply not of the professional quality of press photographs.
21. They appear to be amateur photographs, taken with professional equipment, of scenes that are too neutral to be private and yet somehow too loaded to be public. It is clear that, whoever they were meant for, they were not intended for us.
22. By process of elimination, then, you are left with only one conclusion: that they are photographs of crime scenes, and that they were taken by members or employees of the police whose interest in the photographs cannot have been more than narrowly professional, if not altogether expedient.
23. In 1992 I published a book called Evidence, occasioned by my coming upon, in the New York Municipal Archives, a collection of evidence photographs taken mostly by members of the NYPD’s Fingerprint and Identification division between 1914 and 1918.
24. I had been looking for historical photographs of slum life in New York City, not an easy task beyond the well-known pictures by Riis, Hine and Beals. I certainly hadn’t expected to find those pictures, which shocked me, haunted me, showed up in my dreams, and would not leave me alone for months after I initially stumbled upon them.
25. They imposed a hundred questions. The appended information in the archives was fragmentary at best. Who had taken them, and why? How had they managed to achieve that style? And wasn’t it frivolous to even consider such a thing as style when looking at photographs of victims of violent crimes?
26. I had to know everything about the pictures, about what they showed and who took them and under what circumstances, and while I was often frustrated in my investigations, I found enough hints to be able to piece together some of the stories, at least.
27. The pictures certainly changed my relationship with photography. I had long been interested in the medium, but I had never written about it and hadn’t thought very hard about its meaning and significance and relation to truth.
28. The pictures made me look harder, first of all, and imposed the task of trying to look with a historian’s eye and a detective’s eye and an eye for certain off-register kinds of beauty, all at once. The contradictions coiled up in those photographs effectively presented me with a syllabus which I would have to take on if I wanted to be able to untangle them.
29. Take the matter of style, for example. Those pictures from the teens had a certain very specific look to them, even though I eventually discovered that they were made by at least four, and as many as seven, different people.
30. It was a question of equipment, lens and lighting above all, in combination with the random and sometimes apparently whimsical application of a deliberate method for documenting crime scenes, established in the late nineteenth century by Alphonse Bertillon.
31. What I had taken for a style proved to be the result of an array of circumstantial factors, involving happenstance, laziness, hierarchy, bureaucracy, inconsistency and spatial and technical limitations.
32. In any case that look was indelible. I saw evidence photographs from Paris taken right around the same time, and while the generic similarities were obvious, the look was not the same. And neither were evidence pictures taken a few years later in other cities. Every city—New York, Paris, Los Angeles, Mexico City, Sydney—seemed to have its own distinct… what?
33. “Style” was not the word. For one thing, even beyond the apparent moral hazard implied by such a term, it was unconscious. Could we call it a “fingerprint,” a “profile,” an “m. o.”?
34. The available language appears loaded, but for good reason. The connection is not idle. Detectives are in the business of detecting patterns of display or behavior that the parties themselves are oblivious to.
35. Criminal investigation is in effect an intense critique of style, which subjects people, places and things to a relentless examination,
36. every homicide detective as rigorous as the most exacting scholar or curator or impresario or fashion buyer or grant-panel judge,
37. lavishing such attention most often upon people, places and things that would not otherwise be the object of such scrutiny.
38. As a consequence, criminal investigation is uniquely suited to supply a broad range of answers when we want to know how people lived,
39. since most crime scenes are rigorously ordinary, since crime can occur anywhere, all the way from the front parlor to the crawl space under the stairs,
40. since people do not have the opportunity to clean up for company, since crime and economic standing are so effectively intertwined, since until recently most crime victims were not of a class able to afford to record their lives photographically.
41. So it is that the archived remnants of criminal investigations of the past are superior if usually neglected anthropological documents, containing incidental information that often cannot be found anywhere else.
42. But because these are also photographs, members of a category of object that also includes confections and fashion statements and works of art, we can confer aesthetic values upon them that were never intended by anyone connected with their making, but which are no less real for all of that.
43. Style is not an end point but a process, one that the photographer sets in motion but that is provisionally completed by whoever looks at the work, so that the meaning of style in a photograph remains in flux.
￼44. It is changed by us, and it will be further changed by our successors. Like homicide detectives, we learn to recognize patterns, often by intuition and without necessarily even being able to name the connecting thread of a given pattern.
45. The more pictures we see, the more patterns we store in our back brains, and today a child has seen many more photographs than even an alert and curious adult would have a century ago. Thus we are able to recognize the beauty and meaning in pictures from the past that would have been obscured to their contemporaries by sociological circumstances.
46. That is why our photographic pantheon can now include such disparate figures as Anna Atkins, Solomon Butcher, E. J. Bellocq, Eugene de Salignac, Frederick Glasier and Mike Disfarmer—photographers who in their day remained unknown or unrespected, considered at best as competent artisans, at worst as dog-and-pony exhibitors. We do know better than our predecessors.
47. In the course of preparing my earlier book, I happened upon a manual of criminal investigation written for detective buffs, which included a couple of tiny reproductions of photographs that, despite their size, I knew at once had been made by the NYPD in the earlier half of the twentieth century.
48. A couple of years ago I was on eBay, scrolling through the Photographic Images, pre-1950, as I do from time to time, when I had a very similar experience. There on the left-hand margin was a thumbnail of a picture that I was immediately certain had been taken by policemen in New York City.
49. It was one of a lot of seven assorted photos, some interesting and some not, some competent and some not, that had been taken some time after the subjects of my book but earlier than 1950, apparently in New York City but not in Manhattan, to judge by the building stock.
50. The information given by the seller was scant to nonexistent. They were identified as crime scenes, it is true, but I hardly needed to be told. They were original prints, which was interesting since the pictures in my book had been preserved only as glass-plate negatives. The wide range in print quality indicated a variety of hands had been involved.
51. Eventually I bought about a hundred pictures from the same source, an old woman whose father had been a police detective in Brooklyn. I didn’t succeed in getting much information from her. She was alternately vague, kittenish and obdurate. She didn’t know, and she didn’t want to know.
52. I nevertheless pestered her with questions for months. I wanted to know, for one thing, why there were no bodies in the pictures. It turned out she did possess a number of photographs of murder victims, but she was holding out for more money, and implied she had a line on some well-heeled collectors, perhaps hoping to spark my competitive zeal.
53. Eventually I got her to send me some scans. The results came as a relief, in a way, since I was not tempted to spend beyond my very limited means, but overall they came as a disappointment. The pictures were brutal without mystery. They simply looked like illustrations from the detective magazines of the period.
54. Whatever circumstances of equipment and procedure connected these pictures to the ones in my book did not hold for the photographs involving corpses. The ones pictured in 1914 had often appeared to be in a state of grace. These did not. They were simply dead. The difference may have simply been a matter of lighting, of the burst and decay of the magnesium powder as opposed to the sustained and pitiless interrogation of the flash bulb.
55. In the meantime I still had many questions. The backs of the photographs told me a few things. There were exactly two dates in the entire lot: 1931 and 1937. In addition, a legible license plate was a World’s Fair special, 1940.
56. There was one noted address, on Bond Street in the Gowanus district, and four specified precincts: the 68th, which still covers Bay Ridge, Dyker Heights, and Fort Hamilton; the now-defunct 82nd, which included Gowanus and parts of South Brooklyn and Brooklyn Heights; the 83rd, in Bushwick; and the 92nd, also decommissioned, which straddled Bushwick and Williamsburg.
57. There are a handful of case numbers indicated, but the likelihood of my finding records of them is exceedingly slim since the New York Police Department has not preserved those records. The stories are gone.
58. But then the debris is also gone, and the furniture is gone, and the buildings may be gone and maybe even some of the addresses. The people are long gone. What’s left are shards of unknowable stories. Here and there we can imagine arson or burglary, perhaps assault. There are no bloodstains or weapons.
59. There aren’t even a lot of personal effects visible in these pictures. The people of the 1930s were far less likely to decorate their walls than their predecessors of two decades earlier, while at the same time they owned more furniture and stowed away more of their belongings, so that the pictures are less valuable as historical records.
60. And you couldn’t call the photos cinematic, a popular adjective for crime scene photos. They might as well be going out of their way to be anti-cinematic, showing you the backsides and armpits of everything, and tilting up to the ceiling and down to the floor like drunks or people with stiff necks.
61. The pictures are sordid. They are intensely private. They respond to questions with blank stares if not outright hostility.
62. They do not draw interesting anecdotes in their wake, do not reward the questing eye with unexpected rich details in their backgrounds and margins, do not offer even a whiff of period color.
63. These are photographs of agitation. They are about all the places you look when you’re desperate. You’re looking for where to climb into the house, where to hide the evidence,
64. where to start the accelerant, where to find the party you want to shake down, where to look for the money, rumor has it, hidden somewhere on the premises.
65. They are ugly, uncooperative pictures, as if they themselves were suspects being given the third degree at the station house. They are pictures of beatings and bruises applied to objects and structures.
66. They do not permit even a whiff of the romanticization that documents of crime are often accused of perpetrating. They were not meant for you or me, and they maintain their omertà.
67. But that is not where their interest ends. It is where it begins.
68. They are objects of mystery, enigmas sealed by their very banality. They are so obdurate they might as well be sculptures. They will never crack.