An amazing new exhibition has just opened, depicting images once lost to history and giving us a behind the scenes glimpse at some of the greatest mysteries of our time.
I love history. As the saying goes: the past may not repeat itself, but it sure does rhyme. And there are few better ways to understand the current world we live in than to look into our past to recognize similar patterns to the waves we currently find ourselves riding.
I am also a fully licensed cinephile and film fanatic, specifically, classic Hollywood from the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s, when the studios pumped out glossy, star-studded entertainments like Model T’s rolling off of an assembly line. Unlike the often cynical nature of our current discourse, many films of this age ended on a somewhat predictably upbeat note. Even as the stories took twists and turns, you likely could guess that the bad guys wouldn’t win in the end, the boy will eventually get the girl, and the leads would more than likely come out okay unless called upon to sacrifice themselves in the name of the greater good.
There was really only one genre where those things may or may not be true. Film noir, meaning black film or dark film, emerged just after World War II, when veterans returned home having seen the horrors in real life that would never be depicted on a Hollywood screen. Most often associated with shafts of hard light, cigarette-binging private detectives, and brassy dames, the genre takes many forms. But regardless of the specific plot line, the traditional archetype of the knight in shining armor will likely be replaced by a central figure of moral ambiguity. The guy may get the girl. But, it’s just as likely that she’ll be the key to setting in motion his ultimate downfall. And there will be dead bodies. Lots and lots of dead bodies. Or, at the very least, several key characters who run a serious risk of finding themselves in such a state as they race against time to put a more positive spin on their destiny. Not that it will always help. Many film noirs are tragedies, not thrillers. The fate of the protagonist has already been decided before the film starts, only he doesn’t know it yet.
But, as you know, trends in art more often than not reflect what’s going on in life. What we choose to write about or photograph is heavily influenced by what we are seeing in the world around us. Our art is a representation of, if not who we actually are, then who we imagine ourselves to be.
So, when first discovering film noir years ago, one question immediately sprang to mind. What in the world must have been happening in Los Angeles at the time these films were made that could have collectively inspired such a dark view of the world? And, if Hollywood movies are almost inevitably more sanitized versions of their real world stories, how dark must the real world around that time have actually been?
I am fully aware that as a Los Angeleno, the following sentence could define me as a bit of a homer. But, as it turns out, Los Angeles history is fascinating. Assassins. Underworld crime figures. Riots. Police misconduct. Famous murders. Famous scandals. Famous people. Infamous people. Stories as diverse as the murder of a presidential candidate to the murders perpetrated by Charles Manson. The Black Dahlia. A certain former NFL running back and Ford Bronco enthusiast.
To me, the history is all the more fascinating considering that our modern conception of the city of Los Angeles is barely over 100 years old. That’s a lot of famous stories to come out of a place that just a century ago mostly consisted of cow pastures. And the fact that so much of that history interacts with the criminal justice system just adds to the appropriately cinematic nature of the city itself.
But just as the studios exist to translate those stories into fictional franchises, there also exists another artist responsible for addressing their real-life counterparts. Standing at the intersection of art and criminal justice is the crime scene photographer. It’s not a romantic job in practice, unless you consider tasks like crawling under an abandoned building to take a well-lit photo of a rotting corpse to be romantic. But the unique role of a crime scene photographer affords the artist a one of a kind perspective of a world that most of us will only read about in newspapers, or, these days, online, I guess. (As a side note, if you'd like to read about how I almost became a crime scene photographer myself, check out that article here).
Of course, your job as a crime scene photographer is not to create art but to accurately document a crime scene. Your pictures are not meant for gallery walls, but instead are legal evidence that, above all, must hold up in court. But the sheer volume of photographs required and the inherently dramatic scenes presented lead to some of the most engrossing imagery you could ever imagine.
In the new exhibition, “The Art of The Archive: Photographs from the Los Angeles Police Archive,” put on by House of Lucie and Fototeka, some of history’s most dramatic moments are displayed in all their dark beauty through the eyes of the police photographer. From Charles Manson to The Black Dahlia, From details such as the robbery notes of bank heists to the needle marks in the arms of Miles Davis, these images are all about storytelling. And that is why they are so fascinating.
I am a commercial photographer. I do shoots with six-figure budgets, multiple shooting days, and a cast aND crew of dozens. But, no matter what resources I may have at hand, trying to recreate the power of some of these “technically speaking, basic" photographs would be impossible. Viewing these shots, often taken with natural light or with only the most basic lighting that would be available to anyone who could afford a speedlight, you are reminded of how the power of a photograph is driven by the subject as much as the artist.
My absolute favorite shot of the exhibition is one that I’d seen a few years ago online in a LA Times profile. It’s an image of a woman in a fur coat. She smokes a cigarette while looking directly at the camera. She’s not so much posing for the camera, although many a supermodel could do worse in selecting such a powerful stance. Indeed, this is just the way she sits. Instead, when looking at the portrait, you get the sense of a pure, unvarnished moment. The exhibition doesn’t give an explanation as to who the woman is. I think this is a wise decision, as it encourages the viewer to look deeper into the photograph to try and infer the story behind it.
Who is this woman? Why is she being photographed? How did she get those two prominent scratches on her leg? You can tell immediately from the look in her eyes that this woman has been through a lot. But her gaze also immediately signals to you that she is tough as nails and not to be messed with. From her attire, my guess is that perhaps she is a “woman of the night,” even though I can’t confirm that. Or, at the very least, she seems the sort that may have been running in circles with the wrong kind of men. When looking at the portrait, I can’t help but to imagine how many men over the years had seen that same hardened stare looking back at them. How many had the guts to try and cross her? What were the experiences that led her to perfect such a tough exterior? And was that tough exterior true to who she was or an armor she put on for the outside world?
A great photograph often provides more questions than it does answers. And that is what makes this exhibition so fascinating. A shot from The Black Dahlia case, for example, invites even the most barren screenwriter to be suddenly filled with possible plot lines. The largest print in the exhibition, a shot from the LA river just beneath the bridge with a corpse and a trio of detectives presumably sent to solve the crime, could be a frame pulled directly from any number of Hollywood film noirs. In a way, it was the real life scenes like this that influenced the cinematic choices of film noir cinematographers, that went on to influence the very language of cinema, that has gone on to influence the way we take and interpret photographs today.
When Fototeka founders Robin Blackman and Merrick Morton discovered thousands of such negatives left to decay in a city warehouse in 2000 and collaborated with former councilman and current mayor Eric Garcetti to save them, they not only created an enviable art collection, but also created an infinite catalog of human stories to allow us to better understand our times and our environment. They also helped to remind us that art is not always about gear or the latest technology. Great art is about finding great stories and presenting those stories in such a way that they draw the viewer in. There is immense beauty in simplicity. And the dark stories behind the images only serve to ask more questions about some of the reality behind the artifice of the tales we tell.
If you are in the Los Angeles area, I highly recommend dropping by to see the show at House of Lucie at The Row DTLA, 777 South Alameda Street, Los Angeles, California 90021. The exhibition will be on display through August 11.
The Fototeka team is also currently looking to expand the exhibition to other cities, so if you're not in Los Angeles, be sure to keep an eye out for the show in a town near you.