ARTS & CULTURE

How The World Of Crime Photography Has Changed Since 1920

03/04/2015 09:16 am ET | Updated Mar 04, 2015

Warning: This article contains graphic and violent imagery.

empty

Many of us digest incidents of violence on a daily basis, via our local newspaper or digital media of choice. But how have these images of crime and its gruesome aftermath transformed over the course of the last century? An exhibition entitled "Crime Then and Now: Through the Lens of the Chicago Tribune" spans the history of crime photography through a particular publication, revealing the ever shifting ways we view violence in the world around us.

Back in the 1920s, '30s and '40s, crime photography was a whole different breed than it is today. For starters, there were big name photographers like Arthur Fellig, also known as Weegee, who roamed the night-cloaked streets with almost supernatural intuition, capturing dizzying, behind-the-scenes shots of sensational gore. With his handy Speed Graphic camera, Weegee turned murder and crime into a spectator sport, snapping intimate shots that did away with any figurative caution tape between the viewer and the scene of the crime.

lineup

Joseph Schuster, center, was identified by robbery victims as the killer of policeman Arthur Sullivan. Policeman Arthur Sullivan, 38, of the Marquette station, was shot and killed at the Kedzie Ave. station of the Douglas Park "L" branch near 20th Street on Jan. 14,1937. Sullivan, off duty, was on his way home when he was stopped by a clerk from a nearby pharmacy who pointed out a man who had robbed the pharmacy the day before. Policeman Sullivan trailed the man to the "L" station when he confronted him. According to the Chicago Daily Tribune, the suspect said "Officer, I'm a law abiding citizen." As Sullivan marched the man down the stairs to the middle platform, the suspect grabbed a gun from a hidden left shoulder holster and shot Sullivan in the head. Sullivan left a widow and four children, the youngest was two and the eldest was 15 years old. Paroled convict Joseph Schuster, 30, was later convicted of killing Sullivan and sentenced to die by the electric chair. Chicago Herald & Examiner photo. (glass negative)

In major cities across the country, crime photographers followed Weegee's lead, getting up close and personal with the most illustrious murderers, robbers and bandits of the day. At the time, law enforcement officials allowed, and even encouraged, photographers to immortalize the grisly aftermath of lawful misconduct. Even the criminals themselves weren't opposed to posing for the camera, with kingpins like Al Capone and John Dillinger hungry for press.

"In the old days, photographers were very much working with the police," Tribune photo editor Michael Zajakowski explained to Slate. "They were stationed at police precincts, and they’d be sitting next to the sergeants when calls came in -- they’d be able to run out to a scene and get there sometimes even before the police." Zajakowski co-curated the exhibition, along with Gage Gallery’s Tyra Robertson.

dill

Betty Nelson and Rosella Nelson view the body of John Dillinger while in bathing suits at the Cook County Morgue, located at Polk and Wood Streets, in Chicago. In the days after Dillinger was killed on July 22, 1934, massive crowds lined up outside the morgue to get a glimpse of the notorious public enemy.

The resulting images from this early photo era were deliberate and intimate, planned with permission and unafraid to revel in all the dirty details. Many of such chilling and iconic images appeared in the Chicago Tribune. In one photo, two ladies clad in bathing suits push to the front of the crowd to catch a glimpse of Dillinger's corpse at the Cook County Morgue. In another, 16-year-old Donald Jay Cook reads a book in Cook County jail during his sentence for killing a fellow 16-year-old and stuffing him in a closet.

If you've looked at a newspaper in the past few years, we don't need to tell you things have changed quite a bit. For one, photojournalists and police forces aren't quite so cozy, and thus that vintage class of insider images is no longer in reach. Furthermore, the public's collective thirst for the bloody details is no longer en vogue, and explicit images are often deemed insensitive and cruel in the face of human suffering.

Contemporary crime photojournalists, then, have veered toward more emotion-driven narratives, capturing the victims and their loved ones instead of the moments directly following the event itself. "We’re not just going to a crime scene, photographing what’s there and walking away," said Zajakowski.

j

Judy Young, center, whose six-month-old daughter Jonylah Watkins was killed at 65th and Maryland Ave. in Chicago on March 11, 2013 has her photo taken at the scene of the shooting the day after it occurred, surrounded by family and friends. Jonathan Watkins, Jonylah’s father, was changing his infant daughter's diaper in a parked minivan when a gunman walked up and shot both Monday afternoon in the South Side's Woodlawn neighborhood. Jonylah was killed by a bullet meant for her father. Police say Willis believed Jonathan Watkins had stolen the Sony PlayStation of the gunman. Nancy Stone photo.

In early 2013, the Tribune tweaked its photography methodology once again, creating an an overnight crime beat with reporters on call from 9 p.m. to 9 a.m. The new nocturnal shift produced a contemporary body of work that captured the reality of serious crime in one of the most violent cities today. The images focus on human expressions of pain and anguish, as well as the physical imprints of violence on the flesh. Not to mention, the black-and-white images of yore have been replaced with saturated prints charged with color and detail.

How has the strange beast that is crime photography changed over the past century? Everything from its perspective to its palette have been revamped according to the norms of the time, though some aspects remain untouched. Whether in 1920 or 2015, crime photographs still have that magical ability to attract and repulse, to reveal at once too much and too little, to tell stories we wish did not exist but still love to divulge.

"Crime Then and Now: Through the Lens of the Chicago Tribune" runs through April 11, 2015 at Gage Gallery at Roosevelt University in Chicago. See a preview below.

  • © Chicago Tribune
    Chief defense attorney and noted Chicago lawyer Clarence Darrow makes his case for life sentences before Judge John R. Caverly in the murder case against Richard Loeb, 18, and Nathan Leopold, Jr., 19, in the summer of 1924. In a shocking twist to the trial, Darrow pled the two defendants guilty in hopes of saving them from hanging. Darrow's masterful handling of the case has been the subject of many books and movies. University of Chicago graduate students Leopold and Loeb set out to commit the "perfect" murder by killing a random person, Robert "Bobby" Franks, 14. Both Leopold and Loeb were sent to Stateville Prison in Joliet for 99 years for kidnapping and a life sentence for murder. Loeb was killed in prison on Jan. 28, 1936. Leopold was released from prison in 1958.
  • © Chicago Tribune
    Three-year-old Deonta Howard, a victim of a mass shooting in a South Side park, is released from the hospital after plastic surgery Sept. 25, 2013. Two men armed with an assault rifle and a .22-caliber handgun fired indiscriminately into a crowd and wounded 13 people in Cornell Square Park in the Back of the Yards neighborhood Sept. 19, 2013. He was playing on the basketball court when a bullet struck him near the ear and exited through his cheek. Doctors said Deonta did not suffer brain damage. Chris Sweda photo.
  • © Chicago Tribune
    A Forensics Services investigator photographs the scene where a gunshot victim died, in an alley on the 4000 block of West Jackson Boulevard Saturday, Sept. 20, 2014, in Chicago. A 16-year-old boy was found in the alley with one or more gunshot wounds and transported to an area hospital, where he was pronounced dead. John J. Kim photo.
  • © Chicago Tribune
    Donald Jay Cook, 16, in Cook County jail, circa Dec. 5, 1945. Cook murdered Morton Stein, 16, on May 11, 1945 in room 733 at the Stevens Hotel in Chicago. According to Cook, the boys had been committing robberies and when Cook wanted out, a fight ensued. Stein was bludgeoned with a blackjack, stabbed several times, and then stuffed in a closet. Cook fled Chicago and was captured in Lousiana in September. He was sentenced to 7-14 years in prison after changing his plea from not guilty to guilty of manslaughter.

Also on HuffPost:

  • Weegee(Arthur Fellig)/International Center of Photography via Getty Images
    A dead body lies on a cobblestone street covered by paper, newspaper and a shoe; police officer and perhaps a priest stand near by and a crowd watches in the background, 1940. New York, United States. (Photo by Weegee(Arthur Fellig)/International Center of Photography/Getty Images)
  • Weegee(Arthur Fellig)/International Center of Photography via Getty Images
    A man with bandages on his face is arrested and held by a man with an American flag pin on his coat lapel, 1940. New York, United States. (Photo by Weegee(Arthur Fellig)/International Center of Photography/Getty Images)
  • Weegee(Arthur Fellig)/International Center of Photography via Getty Images
    Two policemen were critically injured yesterday when their radio car cracked into a truck at 55th St. and Eleventh Ave. They were chasing two men who were fleeing in a stolen car after holding up a tailor shop at 446 W. 57th St. One suspect was later seized by other policemen, 1943. New York, United States. (Photo by Weegee(Arthur Fellig)/International Center of Photography/Getty Images)
  • Weegee(Arthur Fellig)/International Center of Photography via Getty Images
    1945: A policeman holds up a large pair of knickers, found amongst some recovered stolen goods in New York. (Photo by Weegee(Arthur Fellig)/International Center of Photography/Getty Images)
  • Weegee(Arthur Fellig)/International Center of Photography via Getty Images
    A messy shambles is visible at the scene of a burglary as the criminals left a jumbled pile of things, including clothes, coats, lamp, suitcase, telephone, radio and a Police Department No Parking sign inside a room, New York, ca.1940s. (Photo by Weegee(Arthur Fellig)/International Center of Photography/Getty Images)
  • Weegee(Arthur Fellig)/International Center of Photography via Getty Images
    A uniformed police officer stands at the back of a police truck with two objects, perhaps dead bodies, wrapped in cloth and rope, New York, ca.1945. (Photo by Weegee(Arthur Fellig)/International Center of Photography/Getty Images)
  • Weegee(Arthur Fellig)/International Center of Photography via Getty Images
    A man looks at a damaged safe, 'The Mosler Safe Co.' printed on the top of the safe, lying on its side; dumb waiter in the background, New York, ca.1945. (Photo by Weegee(Arthur Fellig)/International Center of Photography/Getty Images)
  • Weegee(Arthur Fellig)/International Center of Photography via Getty Images
    circa 1947: A newspaper boy in New York City, carrying an edition with the headline 'Black Dahlia Confession'. The headline refers to the horrific murder of Elizabeth Short, found severed in two in a vacant lot near Hollywood in January 1947. (Photo by Weegee(Arthur Fellig)/International Center of Photography/Getty Images)
  • Weegee(Arthur Fellig)/International Center of Photography via Getty Images
    A policeman displays a rack of belts hung in alphabetical order in a police station, New York, New York, 1950. Weegee entitled this image 'Policeman With Belts.' (Photo by Weegee(Arthur Fellig)/International Center of Photography/Getty Images)
  • Weegee(Arthur Fellig)/International Center of Photography via Getty Images
    A woman grimaces while clutching her stomach, while on the ground; two men stand above her, on the street at night, New York, ca.1950s. (Photo by Weegee(Arthur Fellig)/International Center of Photography/Getty Images)
  • Weegee(Arthur Fellig)/International Center of Photography via Getty Images
    People gather at their windows to look at a murder investigation on the street below in Hell's Kitchen circa 1955 in New York City, New York. (Photo by Weegee (Arthur Fellig)/International Center of Photography/Getty Images) *** Local Caption ***
  • Weegee(Arthur Fellig)/International Center of Photography via Getty Images
    Crowd of people, stand around a parked car and gawk at an off-camera crime scene, New York, New York, mid 20th century. (Photo by Weegee (Arthur Fellig)/International Center of Photography/Getty Images)
  • Weegee(Arthur Fellig)/International Center of Photography via Getty Images
    Originally entitiled 'Murder,' images shows a man who lifts up a woman, while another man holds a dog under his arm, as they all stare to the left, twentieth century. (Photo by Weegee(Arthur Fellig)/International Center of Photography/Getty Images)
  • Weegee(Arthur Fellig)/International Center of Photography via Getty Images
    A minor witness questioned in New Jersey's Redwood murder, twentieth century. (Photo by Weegee (Arthur Fellig)/International Center of Photography/Getty Images)
  • Weegee(Arthur Fellig)/International Center of Photography via Getty Images
    An unidentified man stands beside of a phone booth in the London Chemists drugstore (near the near 23rd Street and Eighth Avenue), twentieth century. Despite wearing a disguise, crime figure Vincent Coll, nicknamed "‘Mad Dog,"’ had been shot in the booth. Coll had earned the nickname after shooting several children during the commission of a drive-by shooting of a rival. (Photo by Weegee (Arthur Fellig)/International Center of Photography/Getty Images)
  • Weegee(Arthur Fellig)/International Center of Photography via Getty Images
    The body of Ruth Fagin Bodenheim is wrapped up in blankets lying on the cobblestone street; two men are about to put it into a wooden box and then in the back of a morgue wagon, New York, 1954. Poet, author of 10 books, and 13 novels and Greenwich Village bohemian Maxwell Bodenheim, 62, and his wife, Ruth Fagin, 35, were murdered by Harold Weinberg on the night of February 6, 1954. (Photo by Weegee(Arthur Fellig)/International Center of Photography/Getty Images)
  • ASSOCIATED PRESS
    Equipment that was seized by Secret Service agents when three men were arrested in New York, Feb. 8, 1937. The seizure included plates and other apparatus as well as $50,000 in nearly perfect $10 bills, finished and ready for distribution. (AP Photo/Arthur "Weegee" Fellig)
  • AP
    Fritz Kuhn (second from right in light suit), national leader of the German-American Bund, was booked at the Beach Street police station in New York, May 26, 1939, after he was brought back from a village in Pennsylvania. He was arrested en route to Chicago on charges of forgery and larceny involving $14,589 of the Bund’s funds, and was put behind bars during the night pending the police lineup. (AP Photo/Arthur "Weegee" Fellig)
  • Weegee(Arthur Fellig)/International Center of Photography via Getty Images
    circa 1945: Polish born American photographer Weegee (1899 - 1969) photographs a human head at the scene of a murder. (Photo by Weegee(Arthur Fellig)/International Center of Photography/Getty Images)
  • Weegee(Arthur Fellig)/International Center of Photography via Getty Images
    The noted photographer Arthur Fellig aka Weegee (1899 - 1968) holds a Speed Graphic camera, and smokes a cigar, while looking down at a dead body lying on the sidewalk, New York, ca.1938. He is standing next to another man holding a camera and a uniformed police officer; a gun is visible on the sidewalk. (Photo by Weegee(Arthur Fellig)/International Center of Photography/Getty Images)
  • Weegee(Arthur Fellig)/International Center of Photography via Getty Images
    Polish-born American photographer Arthur 'Weegee' Fellig (1899 - 1969) peers into an opened steamer trunk that contains the bound body of a murder victim, Brooklyn, New York, August 5, 1936. The victim, identified as William Hessler, had been stabbed to death and his body put into the trunk. Apparently preparing to sink it in the Gowanus Canal, the murderers were inturrupted and abandoned it in an empty lot. (Photo by Weegee(Arthur Fellig)/International Center of Photography/Getty Images)
Suggest a correction
Comments

CONVERSATIONS