‘New York Noir’ at the QMA

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At 11 p.m., on Jan. 12, 1928, Queens Village housewife Ruth Snyder was led to the electric chair in Sing Sing for the murder of her husband by poisoning, bludgeoning and strangulation. At 11:06 p.m., prison officials threw the switch on 'Old Sparky,' as the infamous instrument of death is known. Equipped with a hidden camera (strapped to his ankle) with just a second or so to spare, Daily News photographer Tom Howard just had to get that shot. And he did.

"Dead!" read the Page One, single-word headline above the photo of Snyder in her moment of death. The historic photo - of the first electric chair execution of a woman - ran for two days straight, selling a then record-breaking half a million copies.

"The New York Daily News was called 'New York's Picture Paper' with good reason - it was the first tabloid to make photojournalism its focus," said William Hannigan, author of "New York Noir: Crime Photographs From the Daily News," (Rizzoli Books, 1999), the images from which will be featured in a corresponding Queens Museum of Art exhibition running Feb. 8-April 30.

Hannigan came upon the idea for the book while working as a photo editor for a special Daily News archival project.

"I had been called in to help the newspaper's photography department decide which images were to be digitalized for their computer archives," recalled Hannigan. "By the second day of reviewing News crime photos, I knew I had to do a book about them. The images were that strong. They just blew me away."

"New York Noir," both Hannigan's book and its corresponding QMA exhibit feature more than 100 crime photos made famous by the News from the late 1920s through the early '60s, a time like no other for photojournalists, most unknowns - with the exception of famous News freelancer Arthur Fellig, better known as "WeeGee."

"The technology of the time was one key reason for this golden age of photojournalism," said Hannigan, explaining that the camera of choice was the Speed Graphic, which relied on a one-shot magnesium flash. The magnesium flash - which literally erupted with light - required photographers to nearly orchestrate every shot. This required a close working relationship with the police, which the press had at that time.

"Many of the journalists and the police officers were first- generation Americans who approached their job with an attitude of 'You have a job to do, I have a job to do," and they worked together to make each other look good," said Hannigan, adding, "Today there exists a very antagonistic relationship between the police and photojournalists, especially under the Giuliani administration. As a result, photographers never have the same intimate access to crime scenes as in days past."

In addition to the interplay between the press and police, the technology itself lent each shot a special quality which today's technology - though much quicker, faster and cheaper to use - will never replicate.

"With the magnesium flash, you had a single, intense light source. Each photo resulted in a literal explosion of light. This gave each shot great depth of field. Its effect was dramatic and artistic," Hannigan continued.

Not surprisingly, many old school journalists made an easy crossover to Tinsel Town, lending their same ear and eye for gritty crime coverage to screenplays of the 1940s and 50s, giving shape to the genre known ever since as film noir.

"One clear link between this era of photography and the film noir classics mentioned in the book is that film noir, like crime reportage of the day, concerned itself with character motivation ... the details which seem mundane but in truth paint a fuller portrait of a given character's psychological makeup," said Hannigan. "The crime reporters, with the help of photojournalists, tracked big crime stories day to day, in a serialized format. To keep readers interested, the imagery, the wording had to come alive."             "I'm not putting forth the idea that such photos were the sole source of the film noir aesthetic," Hannigan said. "But such images were ubiquitous at the time, so it's hard to deny their influence on the genre, particularly since a number of newsmen worked for Hollywood as screenwriters. It's easy to see how countless noir films embrace images that both repulse and attract, both disturb and fascinate."

And indeed there is something compelling about the most gripping, disturbing, and yes, violent, imagery of the golden era of crime photography. There is the gangster shot dead on the sidewalk, blood dripping from his head and down the curb, pooling in the street. There is the reputed dope pusher standing cuffed in a precinct, his expression that of pure boredom.There is the happy gathering of laughing gangsters at dinner. The re-enactment of the shooting death of famed mobster Dutch Schultz in Newark. And the body of victim Joan Wilson, shot to death in a Times Square parking lot by a stranger merely because Wilson resembled the shooter's estranged wife.

"In the forward to the book, author Luc Sante ("Low Life") advances an interesting theory about the paradoxical appeal of this crime photography," said the author. "He says that the chief lure is the idea that the viewer of these photos, eyeing the murdered, is partly drawn to the image because he or she has been spared the grisly fate that he or she has witnessed. A sort of 'better you than me,' attraction to an act of violence, that viewed with this degree of detachment, has a random feeling to it."

Hannigan, Canadian by birth, is now a New Yorker and therefore is particularly thrilled at the Queens Museum's decision to mount an exhibition of the photos in his book.

"Several museums had contacted me about exhibitions now and again. The International Center of Photography approached me about it, too. But nothing had come of it," said Hannigan. "Then the Queens Museum of Art came to me, and in an amazingly short period of time, began to make it happen. Needless to say, I'm thrilled, especially since it's a New York museum and the book mainly features New York crime scenes."

Another great reason for an exhibit is principally that the era of tabloid photojournalism sampled in the pages of Hannigan's book is of a time long since gone by.

"These photographers were allowed incredible access to the crime scenes of their day. Access that is now denied," Hannigan said. "With that access, there is a certain grandeur in the images and words of crimes stories of the day. The aesthetics are now completely changed. It is a lost art."

"New York Noir: Crime Photographs from The Daily News" will be on view at the Queens Museum of Art Feb. 8-April 30. with an opening reception held Feb. 22, from 6-8 p.m. In conjunction with this exhibit, the QMA will also be hosting a film noir screening series, "From the Private Eye to the Public Eye: Movies, from Darkness to Light," starting March 24.

The Queens Museum of Art is located in Flushing Meadows Corona Park. For more information, call 592-9700.

Updated 10:25 am, October 12, 2011
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