Documentary photography has long been exhibited by galleries as a form of art, though one aspect of the genre is rarely shown: evidential photography, taken at a crime scene perhaps or as a way of recording a specific, usually nefarious event. But this is the topic of a new show at Michael Hoppen Gallery in London, which brings together images stretching back to the 19th century, showing them alongside relevant pieces of contemporary art.
Among the photographs on show are a US criminal line up from the 1930s (shown top) and a set of vintage crime scene photographs. Other shots show more recent scenes, including a photograph by Melanie Einzig taken on 9/11 in New York, which shows a delivery man appearing to go about his business as the towers of the World Trade Center burn behind him in the frame.
The majority of the images in the exhibition are not well-crafted or even particularly well composed pieces of photography. Instead, they are there to record a moment or a fact, often for police purposes. The emphasis is therefore more often on the subject matter instead of the imagemaker.
The photographs themselves remain fascinating, however. It’s difficult not to marvel at the ingenuity of the Russian journalism student, for example, who meticulously wrote the answers to exam questions on her upper thighs. The photo of them was taken by a passing photographer, Valery Khristoforov, who reveals that she was never caught.
Alongside crime photographs, the exhibition also contains medical photography, including a photograph by Dr Guillaume-Benjamin-Amand Duchenne, which shows a patient whose facial muscles have been stimulated by an electrical device.
Of the images here that might be classified as works of art, all stray into documentary too, though the beauty of the images blur the lines of classification. Dr Harold Edgerton’s famous images of milk drops are shown, and also a stunning photograph by Simon Norfolk showing burnt filing cabinets at the Iraqi National Archives in Baghdad.
The inclusion of these works alongside more pragmatic imagery raises thorny old questions around whether photography is art, and if so, what makes it so – aesthetics? The intent of the photographer? But outside of these debates, Michael Hoppen’s show is also just an opportunity to view a set of images that are intriguing and unusual, and rarely placed on public view.
‘The image as question: An exhibition of evidential photography’ is on show at Michael Hoppen Gallery in London until November 26. michaelhoppengallery.com