Evidenceby Luc Sante
In one sense Evidence is a picture book - a collection of 55 evidence photographs taken by the New York City/i>/i>/i>
Following Low Life, Luc Sante's acclaimed evocation of the underside of New York City's history, Evidence is an investigation into the mysteries of crime, death, and photography that only this brilliant and original writer could conduct.
In one sense Evidence is a picture book - a collection of 55 evidence photographs taken by the New York City Police Department between 1914 and 1918. These are startling images, some brutal, some poetic, and all possessed of a strange and spectral beauty.
Luc Sante minutely examines these pictures of crime scenes and draws them out by every possible means: speculating about the lives and deaths depicted; discussing the progress of the forensic use of photographs and the mission of photography itself; and, where possible, reconstructing the events that led up to these frozen terminal images. Evidence is many things at once: aesthetic object, historical and sociological document, mystery novel, memento mori, and time machine.
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By Luc Sante
Farrar, Straus and GirouxCopyright © 1992 Luc Sante
All rights reserved.
Time in its passing casts off particles of itself in the form of images, documents, relics, junk. Nobody can seize time once it is gone, so we must make do with such husks, the ones that have not yet succeeded in disintegrating. These forms repose in cardboard boxes and closets, in old houses and attics, in filing cabinets and mini-storage warehouses, in museums and libraries, in archives. In a great city such as New York there are collections of artifacts and boneyards of information everywhere. Among these are dissertations that will never be read, codes that will never be deciphered, objects whose particular import will never be understood, and the traces of innumerable human beings lost to history once and for all, without monuments or descendants or living memory, just a name somewhere in an official record consulted rarely if at all.
The Municipal Archives, which occupies a lower corner of the impressive old Beaux-Arts Surrogate's Court building at Chambers and Centre streets, contains birth and death and marriage records, the files of former mayors and district attorneys, the leavings of city commissions and departments. It is a cool place, well lit, not musty. Every day a scattering of historical researchers and a larger number of genealogists sit at the microfilm readers dowsing their way through copies of, say, the 1895 Police Census, looking for a faint footprint that may have been left there by someone who cannot be recalled in any other fashion. I went there while I was working on my book Low Life, not looking for any specific or exact documents, just for clues to what things were like in the city's slum and vice districts a hundred or so years ago. I didn't know what the archives possessed, exactly, and I was pursuing the non-method I used for that research, which consisted of trusting in a certain magnetic charge — I would know what I was looking for when I saw it — and then passing streams of miscellaneous data in review. In that spirit I worked my way fruitlessly through the microfilmed photographic collection of the Department of Docks and Wharves (most of the pictures obliterated by moisture, acidity, or general decay), the endless negative copies of precinct blotters in spidery copperplate script, interminably recording drunk-and-disorderly charges against forgotten persons on forgotten nights, and sundry other files of, to me, intangible interest.
It was, I think, on my third visit that Kenneth Cobb, the director of the archives, wondered if I'd be interested in seeing the Police Department photo collection. I gulped and said yes, and presently a library cart was wheeled out from a back room, laden with fifteen fat ring binders in archival boxes. As soon as I pulled out the first volume and began leafing through the pages of prints, my eyes widened. Nothing in the reams of photographic documentation I'd sorted through — countless inert pictures of buildings, posed ranks of functionaries, fuzzy views of empty streets devoid of detail — had prepared me for this. Here was a true record of the texture and grain of a lost New York, laid bare by the circumstances of murder. Lives stopped by razor or bullet were frozen by a flash of powder, the lens according these lives their properties — their petticoats and button shoes and calendars and cuspidors and beer bottles and wallpaper. The pictures were not just detailed documents, either, but astonishing works in their medium. I thought I had come across the traces of a forgotten master, who seemed to prefigure the pitiless flashlit realism of Weegee while having affinities to Eugène Atget's passionate documentary lyricism. A style seemed to announce itself, deliberate and inimitable.
Confusingly, the photographs in the albums were organized by no principle that I could detect. The pictures that made me gasp were intermittent, shuffled together with copies of chauffeurs' licenses and out-of-town Bertillon records (painstaking lists of criminals' body measurements, according to a now obsolete identification method) and magnified views of pieces of jewelry and barely decipherable snapshots. In addition, there were lengthy and boring series of intradepartmental subjects: police dogs, for example, or horses, or studies of urinals at different station houses. There was a copy of a Black Hand threat letter, decorated with obscene drawings, and even an enigmatic set of shots, from various angles, of a man's right hand with two thumbs. I was no more enlightened by the captions, which comprised the fifteenth volume. I discovered, first of all, that although there were 1,400 images in the collection, considerably fewer were actually represented by prints. The negatives were glass plates, and many had cracked or been ruinously chipped, or their emulsion had stuck to the envelopes in which they had been stored. Furthermore, the captions were erratic. A minority were original to the photographs, transcribed from the discarded envelopes; the others, compensating for missing or illegible labels, represented guesses or skeletal descriptions by the archivists. Thus, a truly enigmatic image would yield up no more information than "Homicide victim male interior." The most I was able to ascertain was that the pictures dated from between 1914 and 1918 (with a few mug shots from the 1920s mixed in and two photos of a vacant lot bearing a crop of marijuana that dated from 1935). The collection appeared to be a slice of the New York Police Department's documentation that had been extracted, shaken up, and then dropped. I was puzzled as well as stirred, but for my purposes at the time I was satisfied with choosing a few appropriate pictures and having them copied.
But the pictures would not leave me alone. I found that I thought about them frequently, able to recall this or that image in disconcerting detail. I went back a number of times to look at the collection and, finally, plunged into the task of investigating their context and the circumstances of their making. All the while, their mystery increased. Problems and questions appeared in every direction, and each individual picture wove its own tangle. Why had they been taken? Who took them? What sort of truth were they supposed to represent? How did they come to have such a singular look about them? Why had they been preserved, and then neglected, and then preserved again? Why just those five years? What could account for the alternation of horror and emptiness in their depictions? On the horizon loomed some of the most perplexing knots raised by photography, raised anew by these examples: about truth, and transparency, and intrusion, and power, and individual style, and permanence.
I will attempt to address those questions in the following pages, but one of them, at least, can be given its sadly banal answer. It seems that in 1983 or '84, when the city was in the process of cleaning out the old police headquarters on Centre Street as a condition of its sale to private interests, workers removed roomfuls of files from its innards, and those files were dumped into the East River. (This was scarcely unprecedented; a forensic historian, writing in 1961, noted that "a few years ago," the NYPD, needing filing space, had taken thousands of its nineteenth-century glass-plate mug shots and likewise consigned them to New York Bay.) The city's archivists were informed too late, but, according to John R. Podracky, then of the Municipal Archives and now curator of the Police Academy Museum, they got there in time to find a small room under a staircase that had been overlooked by the workers. It contained filing cabinets that held those 1,400 plates, housed in manila envelopes, neglected for nearly three-quarters of a century and allowed to deteriorate. All the earlier New York Police Department work in forensic photography, most of the information concerning the surviving pictures, and probably a good deal of the later work as well (the NYPD, citing legal fears, is loath to discuss its archival holdings with outsiders), is lost forever.
The photographs on the following pages may inspire horror, as well as pity, and maybe morbid fascination and dull voyeurism. This is unavoidable, but it is not intended. I am presenting them because of their terrible eloquence and their nagging silence. I cannot mitigate the act of disrespect that is implicit in the act of looking at them, but their power is too strong to ignore; they demand confrontation as death demands it. I offer this work as a memorial to these dead, named and anonymous, as well as to their now equally dead photographers: John Golden, Clement Christensen, Arthur DeVoe, Frederick Zwirz, Charles Abrams, Charles Carsbrer, and perhaps unrecorded others.
Police-blotter time consists of a long night and a short day. It is time that slips out of normal reckoning. Proclamations are made during the business day; everybody knows where they were when the bomb went off. Obscure homicides, however, take place in what seems like an extra pocket of the temporal continuum, in some unregulated patch between hours. The locations, meanwhile, define banality: bedrooms, bars, back streets, alleys, vacant lots, storerooms, hovels, hallways. A prosaic life, conducted in such open ordinariness that it might as well be a cloak of secrecy, is lit up all at once, at its termination. You do not have to be glamorous to meet a violent end; it can happen any old way — by mistake, for failing to give somebody a cigarette, for loving too much or too little, for wearing the wrong hat. Suddenly that supine figure, beneath notice when erect an hour ago, becomes an object of interest, at least momentarily. An alarm is given; the cops rush in; evidence is sought. A police photographer records the scene, in the process uniting, for the last time and in ways that go beyond forensic significance, the body and its familiars.
These pictures, taken so long ago that the people in them would now be dead even if they had enjoyed long and untroubled lives, exist in an eternal present that preserves their subjects between extinction and decay. The ones without bodies in them — nearly all of these are uncaptioned, their significance lost — are just as ominous, even viewed separately. Taken together, they become stills from a film, a nightmare ride from room to room in the small hours: the working day of a professional witness or a fingerprinter of corpses, perhaps, but without the protective cynicism of such a trade, more like a dream spent hurtling around trying to keep appointments, but the parties keep turning up dead. There is a mystery here which is only partly accounted for by the period clothes and the wide-angle lens and the flash powder. If photographs are supposed to freeze time, these crystallize what is already frozen, the aftermath of violence, like a voice-print of a scream. If photographs extend life, in memory and imagination, these extend death, not as a permanent condition the way tombstones do, but as a stage, an active moment of inactivity. Their subjects are constantly in the process of moving toward obliteration. It is death upon death, from animal to document.
We think we know how to look at death because we've looked at paintings: the dead Patroclus, the dead Ajax, the dead Christ, the dead Marat, dire tableaux of butchered limbs in baroque versions of antiquity. Photography allows less of a remove, but maybe it is possible to inure oneself to Alexander Gardner's Civil War battlefields full of corpses or the trophy or memorial images of propped-up dead Communards or Dalton Gang members. Those bodies become historical or symbolic, and their flesh is thus transsubstantiated mentally into some odorless and enduring substance like marble or wax. The pictures from concentration camps are unendurable, but anger and resolution can eclipse revulsion in the will if not in the craw. These photographs of quotidian death provoke a different response. Their triviality is no defense against them, rather the opposite, and if the datedness of their properties allows some distance, it is immediately canceled by the explosive light of the magnesium powder, which makes every detail stand out in relief, and the looming distortion of the wide-angle lens, which swallows the viewer in its hemispheric maw, along with the anamorphic warping of the tripod legs in the overhead shots, which imprison sight. In addition, these photographs lack the functions that are usually attached to images of death. They do not memorialize, or ennoble, or declare triumph, or cry for vengeance. As evidence, they are mere affectless records, concerned with details, as they themselves became details in the wider scope of police philosophy, which is far less concerned with the value of life than with the value of order. They are bookkeeping entries, with no transfiguring mission, and so serve death up raw and unmediated.
The dead in these pictures are in the room, not just their room but our room. They occupy the proscenium of their separate histories and their shared historical time, but insistently break loose from it, in part because of how the pictures were made, and in part because there is so little difference, really, between them and the victims of urban violence we mostly do not see on the streets around us but read about briefly in the newspapers and then think of statistically or metaphorically. In looking at these bodies, cold for three-quarters of a century, it is difficult to avoid a sense that we are violating them afresh, that we are breaking a taboo as old as the practice of shutting the eyes of cadavers and weighing down their lids. We barge into the room and pick things up with the insensitivity and gracelessness of a tabloid reporter stealing the only portrait of the deceased from his mother's bedside, or of a television journalist slapping the mother with pointless questions while she weeps on camera. We are caught knowing too much and too little at once, wanting to peer beyond the edges of the frame while feeling a reproach coming from somewhere past that margin, or that we are calling down a curse.
Maybe we intrude upon these dead by looking at them, but then they intrude upon us by virtue of being looked at. In De Rerum Natura, the Roman poet and philosopher Lucretius posited that "what we call 'images' of things" are "an outer skin or film" that is "perpetually peeled off the surface of objects and flying this way and that through the air ... each wearing the aspect and form of the object from whose body it has emanated." This film has the capacity to "startle us with the notion that spirits may get loose from Hades and ghosts hover about among the living, and that some part of us may survive after death when body and mind alike have been disintegrated and dissolved into their component atoms." Primitive though this might be as physics, it is an apt evocation of the house of spooks that is photography, and in particular these pictures of the dead. Some of these bodies may never have been photographed in life; in death each has found a stance that seems perfected, and can detach itself from its background to float at will.
Photography is a medium; that is, an intermediate agency between the scene or object depicted and the eyes of the viewer. The word also carries a trace of one of its secondary meanings — a conduit between the living and the world of the spirits. As Roland Barthes, among others, has pointed out, every photograph is in some sense about death. We look at pictures from the past and know that everybody in them is now dead, although we do not always examine this knowledge. Even last month's snapshots present us with food that has been eaten, snow that has melted, joys that have faded, and circumstances that will never again be reproduced. Thus, every photograph is haunted, and, further, is the occasion of a haunting. These pictures multiply this factor, not least because in them can be seen reflected the lack of foreknowledge of their subjects, their presumption to life. Photography, like murder, interrupts life, as was understood by those proverbial savages — Balzac was one of them — who feared for their souls around the camera. But most photographs are charged with only a moment; these are custodians of entire existences, the summing-up before the grave.
The uninhabited pictures are pregnant with implication, again, partly as a consequence of lighting and lens. And there are incidental factors that influence the viewer but may or may not be germane to the deed associated with the site: shadows, stains, footprints in the snow. The stains may indeed be blood, the footprints may be those of the escaped murderer, or they may not be. Every detail of these pictures, relevant or not, has a weight, as if it had been chosen, and the compositions can seem impossibly definitive. The empty pictures may lack the unifying presence of death, but their power of suggestion derives from their preternatural stillness and their lack of an obvious referent, the deathlike void in their centers. Concerning Atget's photographs of Paris streets with few people and fewer activities, Walter Benjamin wrote:
Not for nothing were pictures of Atget compared with those of the scene of a crime. But is not every spot of our cities the scene of a crime? every passerby a perpetrator? Does not the photographer — descendant of augurers and haruspices — uncover guilt in his pictures?
Excerpted from Evidence by Luc Sante. Copyright © 1992 Luc Sante. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
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