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Tucson Weekly Dark Visions

The unblinking camera looks crime in the face.

By Buzz Click

JANUARY 5, 1998:  THE BODY OF John Dillinger lies in battered, bloody death under a rumpled sheet on a morgue-bound stretcher as straw-hatted officials in white shirtsleeves gaze down on his puffy, mustachioed face. One of the officials lifts the dead outlaw's head, much as a hunter would show off his kill. It's a not-so-subtle warning to all that criminals, even celebrity criminals, are not supermen.

That's only one of dozens of memorable photos in Police Pictures: The Photograph as Evidence, based on a recent exhibition at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

The book, which also contains several rather unfocused essays, explores photography's rise in conjunction with the modern police force and the employment of scientific methodology in crime detection.

Unfortunately, photography was also employed in what was perhaps the worst example of supposedly scientific crime prevention, namely phrenology, the study of cranial and facial features, which were once thought to reveal one's criminal proclivities, among other personality characteristics. Like most human tools, the photograph, ultimately, is only as good as the people who use it.

When cops employ photography these days, it's generally to document the mugs of the accused and the scenes of their crimes, and the early examples of these two genres constitute the book's most powerful images. In their marvelous clarity and detail, these photographs whisper of the savagery and dementia inherent in the human condition, and they reveal the degradation which every moment, in one degree or another, menaces the poor and downtrodden, sometimes erupting into a terrible, blood-smeared reality.

On a cheerier note, there's even a photo of late FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, still America's most powerful bureaucrat to date, standing with masked actor Clayton Moore, who played the Lone Ranger. One can't help but think Hoover could have greatly enhanced the surreal nature of the encounter if he'd worn a nice print dress and some lipstick.

Photography is a chameleon-like medium so ubiquitous today that we barely think about it. This book, however darkly, renews one's appreciation for our modern miracle of second sight.

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