The New Flesh

By Miller, Barbara L. | Afterimage, March-April 1999 | Go to article overview

The New Flesh

Miller, Barbara L., Afterimage

Within a decade after the public release of the photographic process, photographers were shooting criminals and crime scenes. Over the next century such images, spurred by investigative and scientific inquires, proliferated throughout Europe and North America. "Rogue's galleries" and mug shot posters captured the public's attention. In the United States interest in the criminal body and its deeds had grown to such a pitch that in the early 1920s tabloid publications such as New York City's Daily News and the Daily Mirror were founded and focused on the criminal element. Hollywood also capitalized on such themes. Although not the original gangster film, Joseph von Sternberg's Underworld (1927) opened the floodgates of "true crime" cinema and by the end of the 1930s, gangster films had led to Westerns. The genre has grown to include such divergent films as Alfred Hitchcock's Shadow of Doubt (1943), Arthur Penn's Bonnie and Clyde (1967) and John McNaughton's Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1990), each partially based on historic figures or criminal types.

Today the "newsworthy" status of criminals continues to increase exponentially. Graphic accounts appear not only in tabloid media but in publications such as Time and The New York Times. The cinematic currency of sensationalistic portraits and scenes has not only expanded, but films such as Silence of the Lambs (1991, by Jonathan Demme) have won critical acclaim and prestigious awards. More recently, the photographic documentation of killers and their violent acts have become ubiquitous on television. As such, these images go beyond mere entertainment. The nineteenth-century technique of representing the criminal type has returned to reconfigure such popular icons as Betty Crocker. It has become the motivating force behind what I call the "new flesh."

Graphic depictions of criminals and their actions appear on tabloid TV programs like Hard Copy and reality shows like Cops. They also appear on a host of "true crime" fictions such as Millennium, The Profiler, Law and Order and N.Y.P.D. Blue. More to the point, at least two TV series dedicate themselves to the portrayal of historic figures. Arts and Entertainment's Investigative Reports and American Justice revisit scenes of notorious mass murders and police slayings. Each week's reenactment walks the viewer through the investigative process, attempting to draw them into the crime scene. From his of her armchair the spectator evaluates the FBI's use of forensic science and its methods of proving guilt not from eyewitness testimony, but from circumstantial evidence. Those wanting to include "official" copies of these shows in their libraries can go online and purchase videos directly from A & E. (This is to say nothing of the activity on the Net where a host of graphic websites dedicated to exploitation imagery have recently emerged.)

Many critics point to the predatory aspects of these depictions, arguing that these docu-dramas reduce the actions of criminals and the photographs of crime scenes to info-tainment. Instead of news, these shows produce a modern-day "rogue's gallery." Here, as in the past, the criminal's body and his or her violent acts become the object of public curiosity. Others argue that such "news" reportage serves a social function, giving a face to the "criminal" and a form to his or her anti-social deeds. Many suggest that this information gives citizens valuable information with which they can protect themselves. Yet recently, another role for crime scene and criminal representation has surfaced, drawing much attention.

Crime scene photography has become the subject of several recent art exhibitions and glossy catalog publications. In these shows and books the criminal element breaks its ties with popular culture, forging a new bond with high art. In the process, a shift occurs: instead of tabloid photos, these images gain museum status. The case that perhaps speaks most clearly to this recent elevation is the 1997 exhibition at the International Center of Photography (ICP) in New York City of Arthur Fellig, more popularly known as Weegee. …

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