The photo as proof: an exhibition of crime photography

Currently showing at the Michael Hoppen Gallery in London is a fascinating though rarely exhibited area of photography: images of crime or evidence.

Michael Hoppen Gallery Criminal-line-up
One of a pair of American Police Identity line-up photographs, 1/5/1933 (with and without hats). Unknown Photographer

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.

Michael Hoppen Gallery Evidential Photography show
Image by unknown photographer showing a burglary at the Comptoir Lyon-Allemand in November 1933 by Plutario Fassi and Fausto Manfredi, who drilled into the ceiling
9/11 by Melanie Einzig
September 11th, 2001, New York by Melanie Einzig

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.

Michael Hoppen evidential photography show
Cheat, the faculty of journalism of Moscow State University, 1984, by Valery Khristoforov
Michael Hoppen Gallery evidential photography
Mexico City, ca. 1970. Photograph by Enrique Metinides. “The murder weapon! A jealous husband shot his wife and then her lover. I included the shadow; it reminded me of scenes in gangster movies.”

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.

Michael Hoppen Gallery evidential photography
Rire faux (False laugh) from Mécanisme de la physionomie humaine, 1862. Dr. Guillaume Duchenne (de Boulogne)
Simon Norfolk
Burnt filing cabinets, Iraqi National Archives, Baghdad, April, 2003 by Simon Norfolk. All images © Michael Hoppen Gallery and, where relevant, the photographers

‘The image as question: An exhibition of evidential photography’ is on show at Michael Hoppen Gallery in London until November 26.

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