Saturday, November 1, 2014

Gangsters & Grifters — photobook with a bullet

   by John Adcock

FIVE STORIES underground, deep beneath Chicago’s gothic Tribune Tower, a twenty-first-century team of photo editors is busy unearthing the city’s social history from the massive photo archives of the Chicago Tribune. The black-and-white photographs in Gangsters & Grifters — reproduced from original negatives on 4x5 glass plates and acetate film — date from between the turn of the century to the late 1950s. Two previous collections of similar photographs from the archives were titled Capone; A Photographic Portrait of America’s Most Notorious Gangster and Chicago Portraits. In all three books each photo is described by a headline and a short explanatory text.

The Chicago Tribune was founded in 1847. Its earliest illustrations were woodcuts for advertisements. During the Civil War wood repro was replaced with chalk plate engraving, followed by zinc etching in 1885, and finally by halftone engraving in 1897, which enabled the printing of photographs.
[2] DEGENERATE. Wood-engraved portrait of H.H. Holmes, in Chicago Tribune, November 1, 1895.

IT’S WELL KNOWN that sensational crime sells newspapers. The celebrated Ruth Snyder/Judd Gray case brought a new low in pictorial journalism when Harvey Duell, city editor of the New York Daily News decided to sneak Chicago Tribune reporter Thomas Howard into the death house with a miniature camera strapped to his ankle. The famous photo of Ruth Snyder in the electric chair — caught in mid-jolt — spread across the US by wire photo, leading to outraged calls for the abolition of the death penalty. The warden, who was against the death penalty, was horrified by the journalist’s betrayal and fled town with his nerves shattered. “I trusted reporters that night, and one of them was unworthy of the trust…”

MOST PHOTOS in Gangsters & Grifters were probably taken with the compact and sturdily built Speed Graphic. ‘Weegee, the Famous’
(b.1899) a paunchy New York photographer with yellow teeth who looked like he slept in his suit, used a Speed Graphic. The photographer pointed the camera at his subject from waist-level about ten to twenty feet distance. Criminals were apt to cover their faces when the camera was pointed directly at them and this technique enabled the element of surprise. A screwdriver and plastic tape were used for most repairs and the film was quick to develop.

WEEGEE said in 1969 that “the camera has become a stencil, a mere recording machine to most photographers.” The pictures in this book may or may not be art but they’re still spectacular photojournalism. That “mere recording machine” caught flashlight-frozen faces of killers and their victims, relatives collapsing, and buoyant crowds swarming city crime scenes, thus granting them a vulgar immortality.

[3] WANTED. A page filled with mostly mug shots, in Chicago Tribune, March 25, 1934.

HAUNTING AND UNFORGETTABLE pictures. A frumpily dressed woman lies face down on the floor while indifferent cops in fedoras search for evidence around her. After their confessions convicted killers Leopold and Loeb stare at each other in a circle of policemen. Is the look on Loeb’s face resentment, or is it the piercing gaze of a slave to love? Nineteen year old Ruth Steinhagen, shooter of Phillies first baseman Eddie Waitkus, mops the floor at the Kankakee State Hospital for the criminally insane. A woman who has just identified the body of her dead brother sits in the back of a police car with her mouth opened wide in a silent scream. A handcuffed John Dillinger glares at the photographer at a murder trial hearing in Crown Point. In one astonishing photo Dillinger lies dead on a slab in the morgue undergoing a public viewing, surrounded by thirteen men in white shirts and wife-beaters, many of them grinning. At the forefront two sisters in bathing suits raise their arms in supplication to the ceiling, faces glowing with perspiration.
[4] MASTHEAD. Chicago Tribune, November 1, 1895.

DURING PROHIBITION and the Great Depression Chicago was the murder capital of the United States. Murder was the bread and butter of the crime photographers, forerunner of today’s paparazzi. The most poignant pictures are those of girlfriends and crying relatives ambushed by flashbulbs. Gangsters & Grifters is not recommended for the squeamish reader but it's a good book to lay on that nephew or niece who’s taken the wrong road in life. Just as the performers of old Appalachian murder ballads sang “people take warning” these photographs of tawdry lives and misspent opportunities strip all the glamour and allure out of a life of crime.

GANGSTERS & GRIFTERS; Classic crime photos from the Chicago Tribune, with a foreword by Rick Kogan and published by Agate Midway, will be released on November 15, 2014, retail price $29.95, ISBN 978-1-57284-166-6

[5] BULLET-RIDDLED Bonnie and Clyde car wreck, photo in Chicago Tribune, May 16, 1937.
NOTE Illustrations used in this article do not appear in the reviewed book.