A National Endowment for the Humanities grant has enabled a project to digitise 30,000 photographs from New York Police Department activities between 1914 and 1975. The collection represents a particularly dark corner of the 2.2 million photographs, videos, audio files, and other material held by the City Municipal Archives.
It’s an assortment of public mayhem, a documentary of social entropy, and misguided statements of very old ideas. Student protesters at Columbia University mount a barricade and issue the peace sign to the police photographer, a crowd of suited men gawk in front of a contorted body face-down in the dirt, a bus-load of schoolchildren stand next to a street car which has careened off its tracks and slammed clear through a pharmacy shop front. In another picture, the lens is turned upon the police themselves, grinning with moral fortitude as they toss ‘indecent’ books into a fire.
More interesting than the subjects, however, is the photographic approach.
The photographs were taken as evidence, as measurement, as the cold hard truth told without distortion or interpretation—insofar as that’s possible.
It puts visual dimension around the distance between life and art, a chasm notably crossed by one journalist of the era, Arthur ‘Weegee’ Fellig. Weegee had a reputation for his unflinching perspective of life and society on New York’s Lower East Side in the 1930s and 40s, developed in a mobile darkroom in the boot of his car. But unlike the NYPD pictures, Weegee’s were a social commentary, riddled with meaning and intrigue, and sold to the press.
Compared with Weegee’s work, the emotional distance in this collection is disarming. Here are the city’s headline events of six decades, the photographer was right there in the room, and yet the pictures do not issue judgement. Instead, the photographer chose high angles—often shooting from a ladder or a second level—wide framing that embraced every detail of the scene, direct lighting, and the widest depth of field available. It’s the antithesis of the dynamic angle, selective focus, tightly cropped and powerfully lit press photograph. And with it is a matter-of-fact point of view. A body, twisted in a three-piece suit, lies wretched and bleeding, a revolver and hat beside the victim on the pavement. Lazy composition, hard strobe, click, done.
This is the ultimate expression of the dispassionate observer. Picture after picture of potted atrocity—men folded at the bottom of an elevator shaft, a man and a young woman on a bed, side by side, victims of a double homicide, click, click. Job done.
Equally unsettling is the notice on the New York City Department of Records website where the collection is hosted: “If you recognise someone, please let us know.”