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Trespassing, or, the Ethics of Archives

Luc Sante

It was in searching for pictures of life that I came upon pictures of death. I had been looking for photographs to illustrate a book I had written, about the daily circumstances of what had once been called the "dangerous classes" of New York City in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. It was 1991 then, and the realm of archival photography was a much greater unknown than it is today. I simply didn't know what kinds of photographs existed of that time and place, beyond the justly celebrated work of Jacob Riis and Lewis Hine. The century-old firm of Brown Brothers had some interesting journalistic shots, but they stood nearly alone. I had consulted the Municipal Archives, the city's central repository of records, without much luck. There was a fair amount of photographic documentation of New York City between 1880 and 1910 but it was dry, inert--portraits of officials, studies of edifices. There was a lack of human detail, of texture and grain.

Then, one day, the chief curator took pity on me and introduced me to the Police Department photo collection. A library cart was wheeled out, laden with fifteen fat ring binders in archival boxes. As soon as I pulled out the first volume and began leafing through its pages, I was overcome. I had gone searching for--I don't know what, exactly. Maybe pictures of people in their apartments or at work, detailed street scenes, saloon interiors, pictures that showed how ordinary people went about their daily business. In the police photographs all of those things were represented, with the proviso that in nearly every picture someone lay dead. In addition, the photographs were extraordinary, brilliantly composed and lit. Even though I was well aware that others had seen the pictures before me--had made prints from the glass negatives, had organized and filed them--I experienced a stunning feeling of discovery. The fact that the pictures were clearly bound by a common style made me think I had come upon the life's work of a previously unknown modern master. As art historians speak of the Master of the Aix Annunciation and the Master of the St. Bartholomew Altarpiece, here was the Master of the Manhattan Slum Murder.

The pictures were upsetting, of course. Some I could not look at--the ones that showed the results of long decomposition or the aftermath of explosions, for instance. But many others were seductive. It helped that you often couldn't tell how the central personage had died, and that often enough they looked not merely asleep but exalted. They lay in a quiet pool of light fringed by a soft and deepening darkness, like souls about to be born up to Valhalla. In the space between their bodies and the dark lay the impedimenta of their lives--their washtubs and nightstands and cooking pots and chromolithographs. Like the pharaohs, they were entombed with their properties and attributes. I took the pictures to be not mere instances of record-keeping, but transformative works of art. This notion invited a flock of questions, however. Why had the pictures been taken? Why had such a random lot of them been preserved, since they only seemed to cover a few years? Who had taken them, and what else had this person done? Why were there so many nearly abstract pictures, pictures of floors and sidewalks without apparent subjects? I didn't have much time to ponder such matters, however. I had a tight deadline for assembling pictures and turning them over to my publisher.

But then the pictures wouldn't leave me alone. They recurred unexpectedly in my mind, like songs. I would close my eyes at night and see them imprinted on my eyelids. I finally resolved to put together a book, which would afford me the opportunity to collect the best of the photographs, and to attempt to unravel the many mysteries they proposed. What I found out was generally anticlimactic. There were at least six photographers, and those whose biographies I was able to track down turned out to be members of the NYPD fingerprint and identification squad, not otherwise known for their photographic achievements. They had based their photographic decisions on the recommendations of the French criminologist Alphonse Bertillon, a pioneer of both mugshot and crime-scene photography, and judging by the results had either misunderstood Bertillon's directives or had simply not bothered following them closely. Most of the striking effects in the pictures which did not depend upon subject or setting were consequences of strictly technical matters--the size of the plates, the curvature of the lens, the timing of the exposures, and the warmth of the magnesium-powder flash. The pictures were indeed works of art, I still continue to believe, but they achieved that status through an accretion of accidents. There were so few pictures because most of the police department's archives had been left to rot in the cellar of the old headquarters building; when the building was sold to developers who cut it up into apartments, nearly all the files were removed and destroyed. The surviving pictures had been in a small room that had gone unnoticed long enough for the city's archivists to hear about the destruction and rush over to see whether anything could be salvaged.

The book, which I titled Evidence, had a strong and immediate impact. My publisher had had so little confidence in the project that he gave me an advance that barely covered the cost of the prints, but the first printing sold out almost immediately. The reviews ran the gamut. Some critics thoroughly understood the book, but the range of misunderstanding was extreme, and not confined merely to the pans. To be honest, I wasn't terribly disturbed by reviews that called it, e.g., "the punk gift book of the year," but I was dismayed by a number of critics who accused me of indulging in a kind of necrophilic fetishism. It quickly became apparent that many people, regardless of politics or religion or anything else, simply could not abide photographs of the dead, and a percentage of these believed that trafficking in such photographs was morally wrong. I had had my own doubts about the pictures, of course--they were so intimate, even more than they were shocking. While trying to determine a sequence for the book, I lined a hallway in my apartment with them, putting them up with masking tape, and my girlfriend refused to visit until they had come down. Some of the friends to whom I gave copies of the eventual book confessed that they had not been able to bring themselves to open it, and had consigned it to a closet or a trunk.

It wasn't until after the book was published that I began to inquire into the history of attitudes toward photographs of the dead. It seemed to vary wildly according to national cultures, but in the United States alone perception seemed to have shifted several times. I recalled that, when I was a child, my father would never bring the New York Daily News home from work, and it turned out that this was because through the 1960s the paper regularly published gruesome photographs of crime scenes. They stopped the practice in the following decade, and although Rupert Murdoch revived it when he purchased the News's rival, the Post, in the late '70s, with full-page photographs illustrating such headlines as RUBOUT! and MOMENT OF DEATH, this only lasted a few years. And then there was the vexed history of the formal postmortem photograph. Photographs of the dead in their beds or their coffins had once been common, especially for small-town photographers, especially those whose clientele was sufficiently poor that the subjects of such photographs may never have been photographed in life, so that this represented the last chance to obtain a likeness. In the United States the practice began to die out in the 1920s, although in some parts of Europe they were still being taken as late as the 1960s. According to the researches of the collector and historian Stanley Burns, however, the United States was alone in having experienced a mass revulsion toward those pictures, perhaps beginning around the time the practice ceased, the 1920s; in many families the pictures were burned. This wave of changing attitudes perhaps followed the trend in facilities for the disposal of corpses. The 1920s, of course, was also the decade when the dead ceased to be laid out in their own homes and were henceforth unilaterally consigned to undertakers, who soon became known as "morticians," and then as "funeral directors."
It occurred to me that my attitude toward death may have been affected by the fact that I grew up in Belgium, where funeral parlors became the norm much more recently. I had as a seven-year-old seen my grandmother laid out in the parlor of our home for three days, and had paid my respects to her remains every day before I headed off to school. Other countries certainly did differ from the U.S., as I further appreciated when I visited Mexico and made the acquaintance of that country's crime tabloids, in particular Alarma!, which regularly publishes photographs that I myself have often found insupportably repulsive. And then friends brought back from Brazil broadsheet newspapers which routinely featured graphic pictures of dead drug dealers on their front pages. In the wake of my book, though, the U.S. seemed to be trying to make up for lost time. One book after another appeared, which were often made up of pictures from the private collections of retired policemen, and which appeared to vie for the title of "punk gift book of the year," sparing the viewer nothing. Fashion photographers soon appropriated the look of the pictures in my book--some of them told me as much. And the picures themselves, the rights to which I do not control, turned up in all sorts of places--on the sleeves of records by purveyors of industrial music, for example.

Back when I was researching the circumstances of the photographs, trying to trace the occurrences pictured on the basis of fragmentary captions, I naturally inquired as to the holdings of the Police Department. It was hard to extract any information from the cops, but I eventually learned that two sets of copy negatives had been made from the recovered glass plates: one set had gone to the Municipal Archives and the other to the NYPD. According to department spokespersons, the department either did not possess those negatives at all. Actually they held them in embargo, fearing that making them available would invade the privacy of the descendants of those pictured--this, of course, despite the fact that an identical set was readily available to the public a mere three blocks away. I was slightly apprehensive for a while, half-expecting a letter from some distraught grandchild, but none ever came. When I probed my residual unease a bit more, I discovered that my confused twinges of guilt had very little to do with any putative survivors--the pictures had after all been taken between 1914 and 1918, and any grandchildren would themselves be rather advanced in age. Rather, my feelings of responsibility were directed toward the very dead subjects themselves, and had less to do with their depiction as victims of violent death than with the indignity to which they were posthumously subjected. I imagined myself, garroted by a crackhead on that stretch of Attorney Street which at the time featured vacant lots on both sides, being photographed by an impassive Police Academy graduate, his mind occupied by hockey scores and point spreads. Then I imagined being photographed with my clothes laid open and my dick hanging out. Could it make a difference to me, once I was dead?

I never thought that I should not have published the book. The pictures were too valuable not to be brought to the attention of a wider public, and the questions they posed too important not to be raised. Some of the uses to which the photographs were subsequently put, and some of the more unambiguously voyeuristic of the books that came out in my book's wake did make me wonder if I had spawned a monster, but then I knew full well that once an object--a book, a movie, a photograph--leaves its maker's hands, it is subject to nay number of interpretations and uses about which the maker can have no foresight and can exercise no control. This does not absolve the writer or artist of all responsibility, but it also does not mean that Albert Camus, say, should be held responsible for all the psychopaths who have misread The Stranger over the decades and proceeded to act upon their misreadings.

Recently, questions regarding the photographic depiction of the dead have arisen once again, in somewhat more freighted circumstances. Initially it was a question put to front-line photojournalists: Why are you photographing the victims of massacres when you could be rushing them to medical treatment instead? And: Does seeing photographs of such victims in the newspapers help agitate for peace, or does it merely inoculate viewers against usefully emotional responses? In the U.S. we have seen the consequences of editorial decisions concerning such matters. The hanged and burned bodies of four American contractors captured by civilians in Falluja, Iraq, appeared on the front page of the New York Times this past spring, constituting perhaps the most gruesome photograph ever to have appeared under the masthead of that august newspaper, and it duly inflamed popular opinion. On the other hand, the photograph of the body of an eleven-year-old Iraqi boy, killed by American ordnance, being washed in preparation for burial--a solemn and gravely affecting picture--was systematically turned down by newspaper after newspaper. And, by order of the government, the coffins of dead American military personnel cannot be photographed. The reasons for all those decisions are painfully obvious. You may recall Nick Ut's photograph from the Vietnam War of a young girl running down the road screaming after having been burned by napalm. Could its equivalent be published today? Or, having been published, would it merely be lost among a tide of photographs of carnage?

It may seem that such considerations lie rather far away from my book of ninety-year old pictures of forgotten banal murders. And yet both things point to something profoundly askew about the notion of death in the Western world today. We no longer are confronted by the workaday fact of death. We fortunately no longer see horses on our avenues, struck down by heatstroke or cardiac arrest, left to rot until the Sanitation Department can bring a truck around. We fortunately no longer experience the prevalence of diseases such that maybe a third of the children in any given family would survive to adulthood, or that men's life expectancies could far exceed those of childbearing women. Unless we die by misadventure we generally do so in a sanitary hospital room, from which our body is whisked away by specialists who will not unveil it until they have made it resemble a waxen effigy more than carnal remains. This leaves us free to contemplate violence at a safe remove, to imagine that it is something that happens to unknowable others, if indeed it possesses a reality thicker than that of a movie screen or a Gameboy. My murder pictures might not have shocked their contemporaries, but they would have been disturbed to find them in a book, or projected upon a screen--not because they depict death, but because they show the results of violence, the unhappiest of unhappy deaths. Death to them was harsh but also commonplace, but violence was a violation of life. To us it is violence that is ordinary, because death is not quite real, and life has lost much of its savor.