Symposium: Police Work @Museum of the City of New York

On March 13, 2012 the Museum of the City of New York hosted a symposium on Police Work – a conversation about crime photography. Currently,two exhibitions exploring the subject of crime photography are on view in New York City: ‘Weegee: Murder Is My Business’ through September 2, 2012 at ICP and ‘Police Work: Photographs by Leonard Freed, 1972-1979’ until May 6, 2012 at the Museum of the City of New York. The ICP Chief Curator, Brian Wallis called this fact ‘fantastic coincidence’.

The discussion was moderated by Sean Corcoran, Curator of Prints and Photographs for the Museum of the City of New York. He is the curator of the exhibition Police Work: Photographs by Leonard Freed, 1972-1979 that features photographs of the New York City police, including a recent gift to the Museum of the City of New York by the photographer’s widow, Bridgette Freed. On April 21, 2012, Sean Corcoran will give a tour of the exhibition.

Curator and author, Gail Buckland presented a collection of crime photographs from her book Shots in the Dark: True Crime Pictures (Bulfinch, 2001). She spoke about history of the crime photography and how it influenced the public perception of crimes and criminals. Crime photography made public to know the people behind the stories, sometimes even making a criminal into a superstar. The author emphasized that the book features photographs from police archives including shocking photographs of victims which are a bit hard to take. Gail Buckland mentioned photography as a part of the crime when a murderer would photograph a victim. She also spoke about the growing amount of images of violence that could be found on internet today.

Brian Wallis, International Center of Photography Chief Curator and curator of Weegee: Murder is My Business, spoke on the crime photography of Weegee (born Arthur Fellig, 1899-1968). Working as a freelancer, Weegee documented about five thousands murders. He focused on showing human interest in crime scenes and police work more than on documenting crimes themselves and victims’ bodies (in contrast with police photographers). The first show of Weegee’s photographs called Murder is My Business was opened in 1941 in Photo League. The work was not presented on the walls, Weegee created magazine-like spreads with his b&w photographs and added some colored blood to them. The first book of Weegee’s photographs called Naked City was published in 1945 and became a cult item for collectors. See Jörg Colberg’s presentation of Weegee’s Naked City. Brian Wallis mentioned that Weegee’s photographs can be found at the exhibition The Radical Camera: New York’s Photo League, 1936-1951 on view at the Jewish Museum through March 25, 2012. Leonard Freed’s contact sheet is featured at the exhibition Magnum Contact Sheets on view at ICP through May 6, 2012.

Paul M. Farber, visual/popular culture critic and Leonard Freed scholar from University of Michigan, gave an overview of Leonard Freed’s photographic career. See books featuring Leonard Freed’s photography here. Leonard Freed viewed the police officers as members of the city’s working class and co-citizens. His intent was bit to judge the police activities but rather to show how the officers do their job. The photographer approached his subjects with humanity and at the same time with a critical distance. The work produced by Freed changed the negative public opinion of police of the 1970th. His book, Police Work published in 1980 provided a great insight to the life and work of the police officers seeing them as collaborators for building community and safeguarding democracy. See some spreads of the book Police Work here.

The discussion revealed some important questions about modern society: How police are represented in numbers of popular TV series and what their role is in forming public opinion? How does the police use photography and surveillance cameras and how does that effect our life?  What role does the beautification of crime and violence play in modern society?

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  1. New York Antiquarian Book Fair. Part 2: Photobooks. «

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