Can LAPD Photos Be Art? Absolutely

Shooting  victim, occurred on	7th Ave in the  Wilshire  district of Los	 Angeles,  7/19/1950, Photo by	J.C.
Shooting victim, occurred on 7th Ave in the Wilshire district of Los Angeles, 7/19/1950, Photo by J.C.
Copyright LAPD, courtesy of Fototeka Los Angeles

This weekend on the Paramount Pictures lot, in a cleared out storage facility that looks a lot like a police precinct, a selection of images from the Los Angeles Police Department's archive is on view. It's a three-day-only exhibition that's part of the second annual Paris Photo L.A., and some of the images taken between the 1920s and 1960s are staggeringly good, like one of a freckled and fair-haired man hanging on the back wall. Photographed in 1937 by an unknown photographer from the LAPD's Scientific Investigation Department (SID), he's beautiful in the way an extra-gaunt Alexander Skarsgard would be. He's a John Doe who suffered from amnesia, according sparse notes accompanying the photo's negative.

"When you know that, how you see him changes," says Rick Morton, the photo archivist for the LAPD. You start reading something lost and searching into his already faraway gaze.

"LAPD photo archivist" is an entirely unpaid position that didn't exist before Morton started to hold it, and only exists now because he and his wife, consultant and former gallerist Robin Blackman, salvaged tens of thousands of negatives documenting crime scenes and crime victims in 2001. All of it had been stored in city record boxes in downtown L.A. and most slated for destruction. 

Blackman cites the fact that negatives are small and easy to forget about, plus the 2000 moratorium on record destruction that followed the Rampart corruption scandal  as reasons the photos survive. Morton, a film still photographer whose freelance gang photography led to him becoming a reservist with the police department, recalls being told again and again that "hell would freeze over" before anyone let him access the records. But a lieutenant, John Thomas, who wanted to make a calendar featuring historical images of black officers, and a sympathetic police chief, Bernard Parks, shepherded Morton and Blackman through the red tape. 

They printed and exhibited a selection of LAPD photographs at Fototeka, the gallery Blackman then ran out of Echo Park, in 2001. The show opened the week of the September 11 attacks, but still-reeling visitors kept coming. Blackman and Morton then traveled the show, to the Midwest and Europe, and they have continued to cull through the photos, moving some of them to cold storage facilities and having roundtable meeting at which LAPD officials approve images for publication or display (usually, they only disapprove, if an officer is shown dead or injured). But it has been thirteen years since they showed any of the photos in L.A.

Director David Lynch, an expert on noir and guest curator at last year's inaugural Paris Photo in France, introduced fair director Julien Frydman to the LAPD archive. In December of 2013, Frydman invited Blackman and Morton to collaborate with him, exhibiting selections from the archive as a way to launch an ongoing special series of exhibition titled "Unedited!" At each fair from now on, both at Paris and L.A. versions, some un-mined archive will be carefully curated and exhibited.

One of three from triptych  of  images  telling a  story  of a suicide, 4/9/1950, Photo by G.W.
One of three from triptych of images telling a story of a suicide, 4/9/1950, Photo by G.W.
Copyright LAPD, courtesy of Fototeka Los Angeles

This past Wednesday, two days before the fair opened to the public, Frydman, Blackman and Morton installed the photos that had been specially printed, resized and framed in thin black wood according to Frydman's instructions. Frydman was fixating on the back wall, the same wall the amnesia victim's portrait hangs on, trying to get the rhythm of the arrangement of the images right. He had to dash away to address other fair related business at one point, but promptly returned to rearrange the images again.

"I want him to have this," Blackman says of Frydman. "He's been thinking about these images intensely where I've been working with them physically." She adds, "He has a different perspective. Being from L.A., we have a nostalgia." She and Morton both gravitate toward architecture and wide street shot. Frydman has been drawn toward more ambiguous, less iconic imagery.

Chalk outline detailing position of head	with	knife in	
Chalk outline detailing position of head with knife in hand.
Copyright LAPD, courtesy of Fototeka Los Angeles

There's little that's obvious in the selection he made from the one thousand or so images Blackman and Morton gave him to choose from. One of the goals, he says, was "not to have the obvious bloody pictures." In those, Frydman explains, "there's no room for you to project yourself." He points to one, a mob hit in a diner that used to be on Vermont, that's more self-contained than most of the others that he chose. "You can think it's from a Scorsese film," he says, then adds of the archive in general, "Some pictures, you didn't know whether they were stills from films." He prefers that in-betweeness to a still that specifically recalls Scorsese.

Kidnapping perpetrator, 2/9/1933, Photo by Leon Driver
Kidnapping perpetrator, 2/9/1933, Photo by Leon Driver
Copyright LAPD, courtesy of Fototeka Los Angeles

"I have a theory about photography being made of different layers - depending on the context, you see different layers," says Frydman, who often talks about photography as a young medium that still needs exploring when asked why he runs a photography-specific art fair.

The fair is full of fashion photographs or news photographs now being displayed as art, and this shift in context changes them, he observes. In the "Unedited!" exhibition, context changes everything too. Even in the images with recognizable or famous subjects, from the Black Dahlia case, the Charles Manson-orchestrated Tate-Labianca murders or Miles Davis's arrest for heroin possession, the uniform framing and hanging compels you to focus on their qualities as images over the histories they belong to. There are the discordant colors of the outfits Manson's acolytes wear as they kneel outside on pavement outside the courthouse after Manson's arrest. Or there's that unbelievably pristine white wall behind Davis's arms, photographed one at a time to show the incriminating scars, the only ruptures in his otherwise smooth skin. 

Paris Photo L.A., 5555 Melrose Ave., Hlywd. April 25-26, noon-7 p.m.; April 27, noon-6 p.m.; $20-28.

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