Crime Scene Shutterbugs of the 20th Century
(Warning: Graphic content below.)
The infamous New York City tabloid photographer who called himself Weegee the Famous once said murder victims were the easiest to photograph: “They don’t get up and walk away or get temperamental.”
Weegee, whose real name was Arthur Fellig, is known for his uncanny, shocking photographs of both crime scenes and New York street life. When he started taking pictures in the 1930s, he became known for arriving at crime scenes before the police; his nickname came from his supposed sixth sense for crime. (In reality, he just kept a police radio in his car.) But Weegee, who died in 1968, was just one of the many shutterbugs around the world who have been snapping no-holds-barred images of death and destruction since the mid-19th century. Warning: the images below are not easy to look at—but it may be even harder to look away.
Alphonse Bertillon was a 19th century French criminologist who developed the perfect tool for organizing criminal subjects into a database: the mugshot. He wasn’t the first to use photography for recording criminals—Belgian police had been making daguerreotypes of prisoners as early as the 1840s, just a few years after the medium’s invention—but he systematized it, taking the subject’s portrait and recording physical features, such as their head length and breadth, or the length of their middle finger, on the back of the print. In 1883, the Parisian police adopted his anthropometric system, called bertillonage. (It would become obsolete with the advent of fingerprinting.) Aside from mugshots, Bertillon also advocated for the use of standardized photographs to document crime scenes and evidence. He felt that, when used properly, a photograph could not only record evidence, it could become evidence.
Genoa, Italy, 1900s–1910s
In the 1980s, an art collector found an abandoned suitcase full of photographic plates in Genoa. The plates, which depicted dead bodies, murder weapons, and more, were later determined by a historian to have been taken by Luigi Tomellini, a professor and lecturer at the Institute of Forensic Medicine of Genoa at the turn of the 20th century. A contemporary of Bertillon—the two even met in Paris—Tomellini photographed crime scenes and corpses at morgues, then published several hundred of them in a 1912 book called Manuale di polizia giudiziaria ad uso dei periti medico-legali, magistrati e funzionari di P.S. (Manual of criminal investigation for the use of forensic experts, prosecutors and officers of the State Police). He never could have predicted that his forensic documentation would one day be exhibited as art.
Leon Driver, Los Angeles Police Department Archive
Los Angeles, 1920s–1930s
The Los Angeles Police Department’s Special Investigations Division is home to the oldest crime lab in America. Established in the 1923, officers and criminologists in the department used photography to document bloodshed across the city, producing an estimated one million negatives. The photographs in this archive were rediscovered by an LAPD historian and a reserve officer in 2001, but many of the photographers remain anonymous.
However, some photographers did sign their negatives, including one man named Leon Driver. Driver was said to have worked in his father’s photography studio in Texas before catching the train to LA in the early 1920s, where he was arrested as a transient and spent two days in jail. But by 1925, he had been recruited to become one of the first official photographers for the LAPD, documenting murder and assault victims, crime scenes, and more.
Orange County, California, 1940s–1960s
Mell Kilpatrick’s career as a news photographer began in 1948, covering Orange County, California, for the Santa Ana Register. He had originally moved to California to work as musician, but his career as a cornetist was cut short due to a periodontal disease which prompted the removal of his teeth—so he took up photography instead. He eventually became the Register’s chief photographer. After his death in 1962, Kilpatrick’s negatives sat in storage for almost 40 years before a photography collector compiled and published them in a book called Car Crashes and Other Sad Stories in 2000. He’s now best-known for his images of twisted cars, but he also shot crime scenes—including the immediate aftermath of an office robbery.
Mexico City, 1940s–1990s
Enrique Metinides photographed his first dead body in 1946, when he was only 12 years old. Soon after, he scored an unpaid assistant position with an older photographer and started covering major crime scenes across the city, earning the nickname “El Niño” (the boy) among the local press and beginning a career that would last almost 50 years. He photographed in and around Mexico City, covering crime, natural disasters, and car crashes. His images originally appeared in the newspapers called notas rojas—or “red news,” because of all the blood—but gained currency in the art photography world after his retirement in the 1990s, and Aperture released a monograph of his work in 2012. “It’s not like today, [when] the photographer goes, takes two pictures, and leaves,” he told one interviewer in 2011. “I liked doing a whole report.”
Sicily, Italy, 1970s–1990s
Letizia Battaglia started documenting Sicily’s blood-soaked mafia wars in 1974 for L’Ora, a progressive daily newspaper based in Palermo. The 39-year-old had picked up the camera a few years earlier when she was working as a journalist and realized she could sell her articles more easily if they included images. She kept photographing until L’Ora shut down in the early ‘90s and won numerous awards for her work, including the W. Eugene Smith Grant for Humanistic Photography.
Battaglia received death threats for her mafia photographs—but neither those threats, nor the murders of friends, politicians, and judges could stop her. Instead, she said, they were further motivation to keep documenting the violence. "I can't accept that this happened,” she told CNN in 2016. “I can't finish my life accepting this. I want love. I want beautiful things. I want a normal life. That's what my photos were fighting for."