Photography Exhibit Features World of Crime | KERA News

Photography Exhibit Features World of Crime

Dallas, TX – (Music from the television show "Dragnet" is playing)

Suzanne Sprague, KERA 90.1 Reporter: Okay. It might sound a little cheezy, but this is your welcome to the "Scene of the Crime" exhibit. Black and white photographs fill two rooms at the Photographs Do Not Bend gallery with sobering images from the world of crime. Gallery owner Burt Finger spent more than a year putting this exhibit together.

Burt Finger, Gallery Owner: About two years ago, I was at a photography sale and found this photograph.

Sprague: It's a black and white picture of an early 20th century police officer sitting next to a man dressed in work clothes, with little expression on his face. A newspaper cut-line on the back of the photo said the man had just killed his mother-in-law by setting her on fire.

Finger: And I thought, "My God, this is a bizarre photograph. What a weird crime." And it kinda started me on the search for criminal photographs.

Sprague: Finger acquired dozens of mug shots, dating back to the late 1800's a collection of pictures taken by preeminent photojournalists, such as Andrew Sevulich with the New York Daily News.

Finger: I mean when I saw this one it stood me at attention. The man at the hotel or the apartment house is cleaning the blood off the sidewalk from a man who has just committed suicide by jumping off the building and you can see where the awning has ripped where the man actually fell through and then if you look to the side you actually see the man's body pushed to the side.

Sprague: The photo is graphic, and yet calm. It was shot for a newspaper, but the composition and use of light give it a cinematic feel. And it, like other photos by Sevulich, almost tells more about New Yorkers than it does about crime.

Finger: I mean this one where you see the victim laying in the street and somebody's walking by carrying an "I Love New York bag." It's, it's really interesting.

Sprague: Finger's lip curls and his eyes twinkle when he says this. He admits some people may find his enthusiasm somewhat disturbing. But he also believes his exhibit humanizes the violence that surrounds modern society.

Finger: I think if you open up your newspapers every day, it's not just me. I mean, they are playing to other people like me, probably 200 million of them who live in the USA....When you see these pictures, I think you realize a little more about the crimes. I think it brings it more home, more into the heart.

Sprague: Long-time photographer Jill Freedman was searching for this same humanization when she spent part of 1978, 1979 and 1980 taking pictures of New York City police officers on their beats. Several of her photos are included in "Scene of the Crime," although they were originally published in her 1982 book, Street Cops.

Jill Freedman, photographer: I really wanted to show the job. What does it mean to be a cop?

Sprague: Freedman's photos include a poignant portrait of a police officer at the funeral of a slain comrade. Another photo in the exhibit was the cover for her 1982 book. Two cops stand in an apartment hallway. Allegedly, there's a man with a gun on the other side of the door in front of them. One cop holds a gun. The other...a cigar.

Freedman: Well, the cop with the cigar is right-handed and is holding the cigar in his left hand. And, if there was a man with a gun, they would deal with it. And if not, why waste a good cheap cigar. That's real police work. That's the way it really works.

Sprague: Freedman, who has also photographed firefighters and circus members, was given unusual access to the world of New York City police. They developed a mutual respect and frequently allowed Freedman to be present at their moment of confrontation with suspects. Another famed photojournalist featured in the Dallas exhibit was known for his uncanny ability to turn up at the scene of the crime before the police arrived. Burt Finger remembers Arthur Fellig.

Finger: He was one of the first crime photographers to actually have a police scanner in his car. He got the nickname Weegee from the Ouiji board because he would appear, sometimes, at the crime scene before the police and they thought it was kind of uncanny that he was able to do that.

Sprague: "Scene of the Crime" includes two of Weegee's photos, including one from the mid- 1940's of a transvestite revealing himself by removing his wig, presumably for the first time, upon arrival in a New York City police station house. Although many of the photos in "Scene of the Crime" were taken in New York City, one of the most famous photographs in the exhibit was photographed in Dallas on the day president Kennedy was killed. Photographer and filmmaker Jim Murray was on assignment for Life magazine and waiting in Dallas City Hall for police to bring suspect Lee Harvey Oswald before the press. Jim Murray, photographer: And they brought him down to the show-up room in the basement and it was such a jam, such a crowd of people that I decided I wasn't going to get any pictures inside the show-up room.

Sprague: So Murray climbed on top of a file cabinet in the hallway near the show-up room, and waited for Oswald to be escorted out.

Murray: And Oswald, just as he walked under me, he looked up with a scowl, as though to say, What the hell are you doing up there? That's when I shot the picture. And it's a very poor picture quality-wise. It was shot at a 15th of a second under existing light. So it isn't museum quality in itself.

Sprague: But the photo became somewhat legendary. It was published in Life magazine and later appeared on the cover of future president Gerald Ford's book Portrait of the Assassin. It shows a surly Oswald surrounded by a half dozen lawmen wearing their traditional Stetson hats. Gallery owner Burt Finger thinks it's a remarkable shot of Oswald.

Finger: And as you can see he's glaring right at Jim. I think that's what really makes the photograph...and the hats. All the Texas detectives always wore these Stetson-looking hats and I think it's really, beyond being a document, it's really a beautiful, modernist photograph.

Sprague: Many of the photos in Finger's exhibit are just that: a union of historical record and, often unintentional, artistic rendering. Together, they provide an abundance of interpretations of the world of crime. "Scene of the Crime" continues at the Photographs Do Not Bend gallery in Dallas through July.