Weekly Wire
NewCityNet Trigger Fingers

By Sam Jemielity

JANUARY 5, 1998: 

Sandra S. Phillips, Mark Haworth-Booth, Carol Squiers, editors
(Chronicle Books, 132 pages, $24.95)
Strangling doesn't require long fingers. That's one lesson to be drawn from the nubby digits of Ching See Foo, the so-called Chinese Strangler, who was shot dead -- first by the authorities, and then by an unknown photographer -- in San Francisco in 1893. The photo graces the cover of a catalogue for the exhibit "Police Pictures: the Photograph as Evidence," currently residing at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. For those who can't get out to California for the show, the book offers a titillating, fascinating look at investigative photography.

By way of introduction, SFMOMA curator of photography Sandra Phillips tracks the development of photographic evidence from its origins in the nineteenth century and pseudo-sciences such as phrenology (determining human character based on skull structure) through the infrared surveillance systems monitoring today's U.S-Mexican border. Victoria and Albert Museum curator of photography Mark Haworth-Booth contributes an engaging essay on photography and detective fiction, while American Photo senior editor Carol Squires delivers a quick account of dead-gangster photos.

Based on the selection of photos, the title of the book is somewhat misleading. Quite a few of the images fall outside police jurisdiction: photos of epileptics, insane-asylum patients, immigrants in New York City tenements.

Still, the most riveting images come from police files. Two photos of cross-dressing steamship engineer Ernest Long reveal a comely female personage, although Long's guise did not fool his arresting officers. Three photos of Lincoln conspirator Lewis Thornton Powell (aka Lewis Paine) show a movie-star handsome 20-year-old, seemingly oblivious to his impending hanging. Sweet-faced Marie Cirenchia, having confessed to murder, leans out of an open convertible window to accommodate the camera. A blurry shot shows Ruth Snyder, the first woman electrocuted in the United States, strapped to the electric chair. Tom Howard, a Chicago Tribune photographer working for the New York Daily News, secretly exposed one negative three times, as the current was turned on, off and on again.

Disappointingly, the catalogue doesn't show how any particular image or series of photos helped solve a specific crime. Still, for rubbernecking, voyeuristic pleasure, "Police Pictures" is a joy to wrap your fingers around. (Sam Jemielity)

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