EvidenceOctober 3, 2016
Most of the photography I like is “vernacular” – it was taken for some purpose other than to be a “good photo” or “beautiful image” – So I went to see ‘? THE IMAGE AS QUESTION: AN EXHIBITION OF EVIDENTIAL PHOTOGRAPHY’ – a new exhibition at the Michael Hoppen Gallery in London. It shows a hundred or so photographs by nearly the same number of photographers, which were taken as documentary evidence of something – crime scene photographs, scientific studies and the like. The introduction explains:
“Most of the photographs were never intended as beautiful images. “They were required to prove a point, solve a mystery or simply to inform with clarity. The identity of a face, the location of a cell, the shape of a skull as confirmation of evolution, the coaxial lighting down a gun to show the twist of the barrel. All these images were made to illustrate a fact”.
And the idea that photographs are documentary proof is still central to the medium.
A few of the photographs are by people recognised as ‘photographers’ or ‘artists’ – Weegee’s crime scene is a photo of a crime scene and Guy Bourdin’s car crash is a record of an accident, but how do they differ from a forensic photograph of the same subject? One answer is given in a police photograph of a murder scene from the 1950s. The picture is of a window where the murderer entered. It’s only after a few seconds that the viewer registers the corpse, half off-camera in a corner of the image, slumped naked over a bed.
There are several photographs that show severed heads – one is a medical illustration, the other is at first glance presented as an anthropological study, but when one reads the title, it becomes a racist study of a heathen who, it seems, after death has been converted to Christianity by displaying their head with a cross. Interestingly this particular image was veiled with a black sheet as was one other photograph, but not the other one of a severed head. You’ll have to go yourself to see what was under the other black veil.