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New York Noir: Crime Photos from the Daily News Archive Hardcover – November 20, 1999
"Warlight" by Michael Ondaatje
A dramatic coming-of-age story set in the decade after World War II, "Warlight" is the mesmerizing new novel from the best-selling author of "The English Patient." Pre-order today
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When Ruth Snyder was electrocuted at Sing Sing Prison in 1928, New York Daily News photographer Tom Howard was there--with a miniature camera he'd hidden under the cuff of his pants. The resulting snapshot made the front page the next morning (under the headline "DEAD!") and provoked fierce controversy among those wondering if tabloid journalism had finally gone too far. But, as Luc Sante points out in his introduction to New York Noir, a selection of pictures from the Daily News archives, the tabloids "retailed exclamation points"--Snyder in the electric chair was merely an extreme example of imagery that was a regular staple of the paper's coverage.
Many of the photos in New York Noir are not for the squeamish: corpses in the street or slumped in their car seats appear regularly, as do battered and bloodied criminals and suspects. But the power of these stark images is unmistakable--they are, as the book's title indicates, the raw material for the gritty vision of urban life that film noir popularized. For some people, tabloid crime photos are synonymous with Arthur "Weegee" Fellig; only one of his pictures graces these pages, however, and the other photographers represented here (many identified only by last name or no name at all) demonstrate that his reputation relies as much on promotional hustle as on artistic merit. Whenever possible, archivist William Hannigan supplies background information on the people and incidents in the pictures--but it is the images themselves, rather than the stories, that will stick in the reader's mind. --Ron Hogan
About the Author
Luc Sante, author of Low Life: Lures and Snares of Old New York and Evidence, has written extensively on both New York City and photography.
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Most of the photos here are of crime scenes, and a few suicides thrown in. Crime scenes are mysteries; we all sense there is a story there. But the real mystery in this book is who were the guys who took these photographs? Whoever they were, they had no idea they were setting down an arena for further developments in creativity - in film, in fiction and in graphic design. This was working class photography and these guys were simply on the job, trying to outdo each other in the quest for a better shot in time for the next issue, sparing little thought over notions of higher-order art. Except perhaps for Arthur Fellig (aka Weegee), who was apparently more astute when it came to ensuring acknowledgement for his work, most of the guys who worked for the newspapers were largely unheralded. They are now just names, long dead and forgotten. Many of the shots reproduced in this book are only credited with a surname, or are simply credited as "Daily News" photos - nobody can work out now who took the shot.
[...]The conditions under which these guys were working forged a new creative genre, now commonly known as `NOIR'. It was an oppressive era, politically and socially, equipment was still heavy and unwieldy, they had to contend with light (additional lighting was used where it was deemed necessary to illuminate, not for artistic effect) and weather variables and while access to crime scenes were not yet barred to newspaper folks, access was sometimes restricted for other reasons. Check "The Trigger's Squeezed" and "Empire State Suicide"; both demonstrate how restricted access forced the photographers to use unusual camera angles, resulting in distant shots with long lines and deep, extended shadows which, together with the subject matter concerned, creates a sense of oppressiveness, of callous unconcern, of cold doom, and of finality (this can be keenly sensed in "Killer's End"); these are what are now regarded as the essential ingredients of good, classic noir film and associated imagery.
What makes a photograph (and for that matter, any piece of good art) a `classic' is that it alludes to a story, or it at least contains something that will intrigue viewers through the ages. While much of the information for the shots in this book, including the names of the persons involved could be traced (the corresponding synopses are listed at the back), there remain unanswered questions. How was it that the two ladies could tolerate each other's presence at the grave of their man in "A Bigamist Mourned"? What was it that a pretty doll such as Anna Downey saw in John Collins, a hardened killer? ("Until Death Do Us Part"). Why did the gangsters have such flippant attitudes? Check the aspect of Louis Capone on his way to Sing Sing in "En Route To The Chair".
There are other questions for which answers could have been provided in the book somewhere, after some further research. It would have been helpful to know the process and exactly why some of the photos were "touched-up" to ensure they were fit for publication. And who were some of these photographers? And what was the system for acknowledgement and payment? Something could have been said about the cops; perhaps some reasoning for their attitudes and conduct with the public. [...]
Regardless of all of this, the book is very exciting. The images reflect the developments in technology, particularly with the flash; first the bar flash, then the bulb, and then finally the `flash gun'. The sharper and clearer shots, including those taken under brilliant light are perhaps the most striking, and what are most easily recognized as `noir' imagery. All together, these are shots of a period in history which will never return. The assemblage of ephemera of that age; the hats, the shoes and clothing styles, the hair styles, the cars, the buildings and everything else can never be reproduced. And there is something very sexy about it all.
For a further exploration in this photography genre, I strongly recommend "City of Shadows: Sydney Police Photographs 1912-1948"; with shots of folks who were colder, cheaper and meaner, and where things seem even more surreal. To see how such newspaper shots influenced photography in a creative sense, see if you can find "Retail Fictions: The Commercial Photography of Ralph Bartholomew Jr." - still around in some `seconds' bookshops.
"New York Noir" is a selection of about 125 images from the "Daily News" archives, taken from the 1920s through the 1950s. Some are sad, some comical, some grotesque. They're an interesting comment on American urban culture of the time. Many of these photos would spark outrage if any newspaper were to print them today. Their lurid content earned the "Daily News" pointed criticism from many a moralist at the time. But that never hurt business. The style of the photographs had an immistakable influence on cinema and popular culture which continues to this day. The technical limitations that produced starkly flashed foregrounds and pitch-black backgrounds are instantly recognizable in Hollywood films, just as the corruption displayed in the photographs was reflected in popular entertainment. The demeanor of gangsters and thugs -often posed for the photographers- became iconic. Tabloid photojournalists may have wanted only to get the shot that no one else could, but they produced some incredible -and incredibly influential- photographs that have only become more fascinating with time.
Luc Sante introduces "New York Noir" with an essay about the history of tabloid journalism. Editor William Hannigan follows with a history of the "Daily News" and its influence on Film Noir. Both of these essays are very readable and worthwhile. The photographs are mostly one-to-a-page and quite sharp. They are all captioned. There is a section of "Synopses" in the back of the book, which provides further information about the stories behind each photograph, when available. I really appreciate this section, which is conveniently organized by page number. Some of the photos really leave the reader hanging, wondering who those people are and how things turned out. You can find out by turning to the back of the book.
I recommend "New York Noir" to photography and film noir buffs. Some of these evocative photographs are not for the squeamish, but they have made , and continue to make, quite an impression.