Burden of Proof at The Photographers’ Gallery in London begins with a series of stunning photographs of crime scenes taken in the early 20th century by the French criminologist Alphonse Bertillon. The pictures show murder victims, both men and women, lying where they fell in passageways, storerooms and domestic interiors. In most cases, the violence they suffered is obvious from their head wounds or contorted positions. It’s uncomfortable to get so close to these unfortunates, but for the unofficial viewer the pictures have a morbid allure. What makes them extraordinary is the viewpoint. Made using a special tripod, the photographs look down from a God-like position two metres above the body and many of the images mounted on filing cards are surrounded by the measuring scales that played a central role in Bertillon’s ‘metric’ photography.
The exhibition’s subtitle is The Construction of Visual Evidence and it focuses on the ways legal experts, historians and researchers use photographs in the analysis of crimes of violence. As the curators and their collaborators demonstrate convincingly, there is nothing straightforward about this issue. “We can only see what we are looking for and we look for what is already in our minds,” said Bertillon. Exhibition curator Diane Dufour clinches the point with a troubling example. American intelligence analysts studying aerial views of Auschwitz-Birkenau in 1944 were unable to perceive it as an extermination camp because this was not what they expected to see. “Thus the image,” Dufour writes, “is always in itself an enigma, demanding that we articulate what it really shows.” Only when an expert interprets a photograph can it be regarded as evidence.
Bertillon’s metric photography is an early example of an image system used to try to bring order to the chaos of the crime scene and to make visible what might otherwise remain hidden. There is no place for the subjective concerns of the artist-photographer in this process. As Dufour explains, “The objective character of the forensic image is something that is worked on and constructed.” Nothing can be taken for granted or accepted without question. By doubting the image to see whether it holds up to scrutiny, researchers endow it with authority as evidence in the search for the truth of what happened. After that it’s down to the rhetorical skills of the lawyers who present and interrogate the images in the courtroom.
It’s illuminating to see the role of photography in the emergence of forensic science. Rodolphe A Reiss, founder of the Institute of Forensic Science at the University of Lausanne, broke the crime scene down into its components and used analytical pictures to reveal clues that might be invisible to the naked eye. In the exhibition, details such as scratches on a bed head, footprints near a crime scene and fingerprints found on an oilcloth form a row of blow-ups, verging at times on abstraction. While it isn’t the exhibition’s intention to aestheticise pictures taken for professional purposes, when seen at this scale, disassociated from the police investigations they supported, the images become visually arresting enigmas.
If the first two sections of Burden of Proof suggest that the exhibition will be concerned with the early use of photography in police work, the show soon broadens out – there are 11 sections. The first room also features pictures from the First World War, showing aerial views of Verdun and Ypres before and after bombing, and the Turin Shroud, a kind of “photograph produced by natural causes”, which was subjected, from c. 1900, to extensive photographic analysis.
These pale beside a confrontation with the victims of Stalin’s ‘Great Terror’ in 1937–38. Headshots of some of the 750,000 ordinary citizens who died appear in succession on a screen, along with details of the false charges they faced – often counter-revolutionary propaganda or spying for the Japanese – and the date of their execution shortly after the picture was taken as a record. Their faces, grave, defiant, broken or oddly calm, are heartbreaking. These pictures survive as a form of accidental evidence, though they remain hard to access within Russia, but for all their historical interest, they seem a little out of place in an exhibition where photography is otherwise applied as an active tool of investigation.
In the second room, the exhibition extends its inquiry to examine the application of forensic photography in zones of conflict. A film details the compilation of visual evidence from the liberation of the Nazi death camps and its use in the Nuremberg trials, where a film screen was centrally placed in the courtroom and the organisers illuminated the 21 major Nazi war criminals so that their reactions could be observed as they watched the evidence of their atrocities. Forensic photography was also employed to identify the skeletal remains of the infamous Auschwitz doctor Josef Mengele, found in Brazil in 1985. In a series of composite pictures, researchers superimposed the skull on photographs of Mengele. Mounted on the gallery wall, these unnerving images of transformation transcend their forensic purpose and express the monstrousness of the man.
Eyal Weizman, director of Forensic Architecture, a research group of architects, artists and filmmakers, co-authored a book about Mengele’s skull, and several of the sections relate to his investigations. One project examines a drone strike in Miranshah, a frontier region in Pakistan. In the satellite photos available to NGOs and the UN, the resolution is 50cm per pixel. This makes it hard to identify the holes made by drones as they punch through the roof – they explode inside. The military have access to higher resolution. “The differential in visual capacity,” writes Weizman, “is the space of denial.” His project reconstructs the scene to show how the occupants probably died. This is ingenious and vital work, but the explanation is much easier to follow in the catalogue than it is on the gallery wall.
Burden of Proof is an intellectually adventurous survey with ambitions to cover a lot of ground. It feels like two or three shows spliced together rather than a focused survey of a single theme – criminal forensic photography and forensic architecture could sustain exhibitions in their own right. The catalogue does a more satisfying job of unifying the 11 sections and it has the space to elucidate complex procedures and ideas. It’s beautifully printed and well worth a look.
Rick Poynor writes a weekly column about photography at designobserver.com/profile/rickpoynor/81. Burden of Proof: The Construction of Visual Evidence is at The Photographers’ Gallery, London, until January 10 2016. The accompanying catalogue is published by Xavier Barral (£38.50). For more details on both, see thephotographersgallery.org.uk
Lead image: Rodolphe A Reiss, Simulated corpse, demonstration of the Bertillon metric photography system, 1925. © RA REISS. Courtesy of Collection of the Institut de Police Scientifique et de Criminologie de Lausanne