New York Noir: Crime Photos from the Daily News Archive

By William Hannigan | Go to book overview

follow the pursuit of a felon, follow the twists and turns of a trial. Non-fiction short stories were generated on a daily basis, and each era had its Crime of the Century, the equivalent of a real-life novel as it unfolded in the papers. The famous picture of Ruth Snyder in the electric chair, it should be recalled, was the capper to a courtroom drama that preoccupied the whole country for a year. As great as its emotional power is to us, its impact was immeasurably greater on readers who had hung on every detail of the case and felt as though they had come to know Ruth Snyder.

The picture of Snyder's execution is one of the icons of the twentieth century, but a rapid glance through this book will demonstrate that crime has a bottomless capacity for producing potential icons, no matter how mundane, how local, how quickly forgotten the facts of the matter. There are images here, as hook-laden as pop songs, that will carve out a permanent place in your memory. In part this is due to the kind of violence that crime perpetrates upon normal expectation. Like humor, crime acts upon disinterested parties as the forcible interruption of a train of thought. The banal sequence of everyday life, its details beneath notice when it is functioning normally, is suddenly shattered. The body lying face-down on the sidewalk looks all wrong, but maybe at first you don't see the blood or the wound, so that the body looks all wrong the way it would if it were snoring in a four-poster bed on the sidewalk. The suspect hiding his face with his hat makes a more memorable image than the barefaced suspect, particular circumstances aside, also because the action is memorably abnormal: the hat could be a cream pie or a stop sign. In looking at a crime photo we know we are looking at an image of radical disjunction before we are consciously aware of its narrative content.

But then crime retails death, or at best loss, so that even for spectators with no personal stake in the matter it is charged. It is surrealism with a knife. It radiates a dark glamour that no amount of deploring can eliminate. To those of us who were not killed or robbed it transmits a sort of contact high, a fleeting illusion of strength by virtue of our having been spared. Along the way it sweeps up into its aura all manner of props and settings. The photographs in this collection show among other things how the perfectly ordinary clothing of past decades -- men's and women's suits, raincoats, fedoras -- has been magnetized by association with the imagery of crime. Hats once worn by greater numbers of church deacons than by racketeers have in the popular imagination become the exclusive property of racketeers. And the more tawdry, feeble, pathetic the prop -- the floral wallpaper, the scummy bedspread, the overworked linoleum -- the more menacing its flavor will be.

We are looking at these photographs across a gulf of decades. Many of the living are now as dead as the dead;

-8-

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New York Noir: Crime Photos from the Daily News Archive
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page 3
  • Contents 5
  • Introduction Luc Sante 6
  • News Noir 15
  • Plates 23
  • Synopses 151
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