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MET traces history of crime photography in captivating exhibit

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The MET’s current exhibit, Crime Stories: Photography and Foul Play, puts a spotlight on mass cultural obsession with gore.

At the end of the path outlined by the crowd, past the Medieval Art wing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, is an exhibition floor with a few meandering corridors. The exhibition, though seemingly small in comparison to the Egyptian corridor, took a while to get through due to the copious amount of pieces used to illustrate mystery conceptually.

The exhibition, Crime Stories: Photography and Foul Play, was set up with the intention of finding a way for darkness to coalesce with mystery without any accompanying terror. Though this interweaving was essential to the creation of the exhibition, it can be difficult to imagine the portrayal of crime without proof of the gore and death that is typically reminiscent of crime scenes.

The curator purposefully chose photography that does not illustrate crime archetypically. Instead, the exhibit provides dimension to the subject of crime and, in turn, transforms it into a form of art that is unexpected and clever. Crime, usually associated with blood and depictions of death that create a timorous air, is shown through various mug shots and situations that normally would be socially exiled.

The exhibition is difficult to grasp without the curator’s skillfully assembled displays of information. The exhibition’s description on the wall reads, “The crime scene photograph, when not so gruesome as to be unexhibitable in an art museum, can have the hush and gravitas of a sacred ritual.” The exhibit’s photography is meant to stun the viewer, encapsulating them in a trance that governs their thought process to believe that crime is an esoteric, foreign part of nature.

Unlike other exhibitions that can function without explanation, viewers could possibly misunderstand why this exhibition exists without the curator’s input. The most appealing factor in the exhibition is the sense of loss and peril that exists in the photos, as represented by expressionless stares and unfathomable situations. One interesting grouping illustrates three murderers who teem with heavy pensiveness. The description indicates that the photographs were individually edited to bring out the sinister look from each man, evident upon first glance.

Another grouping shows a chilling identification process that is separated into parts, from beginning to end. The photographs are of Alphonse Bertillon and a prisoner. Bertillon, who developed the first modern system of criminal identification, is using a ruler and specially designed calipers to accurately gauge the measurement of the prisoner at 11 points. The grouping also shows the photography studio in which Bertillon developed the standard mug shot photo process, which entails a shot of the full face and a shot of the profile. In particular, these photographs remind the viewer of the intimacy that can exist between a prisoner and a prison task force employee, something that seems to always be left out in these discussions.

Another collection in the exhibit holds nine photos, each of a police lineup, arranged stylistically in a square. The explanation behind this grouping, as provided by the supplementary description, tells viewers, “The images vividly evoke an era and milieu familiar to fans of film noir and hard-boiled detective fiction of the 1930s and 1940s.” Each of the nine photos in this collection has at least one person who seems like he does not belong in a police lineup, based on their appearance and the behavior that their persona gives off. In essence, the photographs here could easily turn into a solid game of “which one here does not belong,” if solely based on deductions.

The exhibition also included works by acclaimed artists, such as Andy Warhol’s screen print Electric Chair. The piece was separated from Warhol’s Death and Disasters series, which focused on suicides, car crashes and tragic celebrity deaths, including Marilyn Monroe. With the inclusion of the electric chair into his series, Warhol hoped to dull the meaning behind death through repetition and familiarity. The electric chair was used as a cruel torture medium but many officials did not seem fazed by its use, perhaps due to overuse and experience.

The exhibition is highly effective in communicating the dullness with which we regard our prisoners. The entire collection can be considered extremely anachronistic but reflective of our time, despite the fact that the majority of the photographs chosen were taken prior to the 21st century. Upon first glance, one might be inclined to skip this exhibition at the MET; but it is a worthwhile viewing. Its exploration can incite the rare combination of empathy and eeriness.

Though unexpected, the photography selections in the exhibition are slightly charming and well focused because the curator chose and enhanced works that were not horridly gory or unenjoyable. The works, though lacking in traditional crime depictions, still maintain a brutal honesty that is difficult to fathom, and perhaps even more difficult to recreate otherwise.

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