LA noir: crime-scene images worthy of Weegee

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Sale of prints at Paris Photo Los Angeles will help secure the future of police archive

Victims feet hanging off bed, 9/13/1934, taken by an LAPD photographer identified only as “Oliver”

A selection of gritty crime scene photographs will be exhibited publicly for the first time at Paris Photo Los Angeles (25-27 April) after having been tucked away for decades in a Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) storage facility. Around 50 photographs, taken by police investigators between 1930 and the mid-1960s, were selected from an immense repository of over one million images at the City Records Center in downtown Los Angeles. They range from a haunting shot of a blood-splattered arm to a hastily scribbled bank robbery note that reads, “Stick up don’t move smile”.

The surprisingly cinematic photographs blur the line between evidence and art, according to the fair’s director Julien Frydman. “The images remind us of film noir or even contemporary film stills, but what is represented in the photos are snapshots of real happenings, and not mise-en-scène,” he says. The comparison is apt, given the fair’s location at the Paramount Picture Studios, a working film and television lot.

The photographs might have been destroyed or permanently locked away in cardboard crates were it not for the work of the LAPD reserve officer Merrick Morton and his photography dealer wife Robin Blackman. They were granted unprecedented access to the archive 13 years ago and have spent hundreds of hours sifting through envelopes filled with negatives to select the most historically significant and visually powerful images. When the Fire Department discovered that some of the earliest negatives contained cellulose nitrate—a serious fire hazard—and recommended that all the material be destroyed as a precaution, they persuaded the LAPD to preserve the lion’s share of images. The cellulose negatives are now stored in a cold storage facility in Hollywood.

Although Blackman and Morton have exhibited a selection of the photographs internationally and through Blackman’s private gallery Fototeka, most of the works on show at Paris Photo LA have never been seen before. (To respect the privacy of the officers and civilians pictured, the Los Angeles attorney’s office must approve every image before it is shown.) “My husband knew that these images existed but he had only seen the PR-type images, ones where cops are coming home to dinner with their wives,” Blackman says. “But he knew that there were more. Once we saw what it was, how could you not be drawn in?”

The display will inaugurate the Paris Photo LA’s new “Unedited” section, devoted to rarely seen photographic material. Collectors with a taste for the macabre can order the hand-printed, uneditioned gelatin prints at prices ranging from $325 to $700, depending on the size. A portion of the proceeds goes toward further preservation of the LAPD archive.

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