Chicago’s Roosevelt University’s Gage Gallery currently features a powerful but understated new offering, Crime Then and Now: Through the Lens of the Chicago Tribune. Curated by Michael Zajawoski and Tyra Robertson, as part of the gallery’s Above the Fold: 10 Decades of Chicago Photojournalism, Crime Then and Now is the second part of a yearlong retrospective meant to appreciate and publicize Chicago’s unique contributions to the field of photojournalism, most often narrowly framed in context of awesome scientific images and life-threatening mid-battle shots in the pages of TIME.
However, the older sepia-toned and cracked black-and-white pictures dig up from coroners’ officers, two-way mirrors, courtrooms, police lineups and precinct hallways to document untampered verisimilitude in the age when mythical figures such as John Dillinger and Al Capone were known criminals whose largesse depended on friendships with law enforcement. Here is where we see a world associated with Chicago-level mystique, Bonnie and Clyde glamour and vintage cars. The newer photographs are the works of the average underpaid and unrewarded reporter or photographer on the night beat, called up at a moment’s notice to report to a bloody scene of human fallibility and error. Here is where we see black families screaming in the middle of the nights, black boys with bullet holes, baby faces and hands brandishing guns. Accompanying exhibit notes describe the expanse in time, theme and tone like this:
“For the last two years, the Chicago Tribune has devoted new resources and energy both to its collection of vintage crime photography and to its crime reporting today. Tribune photo editors and researchers have recovered, scanned and published online and in books hundreds of vintage photographs relating to crime. The archive includes famous criminals, such as Al Capone and John Dillinger, sensational trials, unsolved mysteries and myriad crooks, murderers and others justly and unjustly accused. Beginning in early 2013, the Tribune created an overnight crime beat, assigning reporters and photographers to follow serious crime whenever and wherever it happens. The result has been an eye-opening look at the tragedy that has befallen this city as hundreds die violently each year.” –from Above the Fold
Judging from the color photographs available from 2013 and beyond, and anyone dying violently now each year, the only criminals in Chicago are black. Almost none, criminals or victims, then and now, are white women.
While I am all for the proper and right documentation of the violence in America, I have to wonder what to do with a photography exhibit which features white criminals as part of a near historical black-and-white past while it zooms to present-day color photographs of blacks only as the present subjects of crime in the bloodiest city in America. I am certainly not wishing to see murderers and criminals terrorize any one of us, regardless of race. However, I simply can not believe the only violent criminals and crime belong to black folks.
As I circled the small gallery’s perimeter, reading summaries of each photograph to explain the sometimes graphic scenes of bullet-shattered heads and heart-wrenching emotion suffered by victims’ loved ones, I was astonished by the blatant lack of diversity characterizing the present, modern-day depictions of crime in Chicago. If someone did not know any better, they would think white criminals only lived “Then” at the turn of last century as some sort of bygone heyday to resurrect in documentaries and musicals, while black people are the only insane and transgressive hoodlums “Now.”
I backtracked to make sure I was not being a cynical, paranoid and hyper-cautious black American in these “post-racial” Zimmerman times. Yet, I had seen right. Either the curators of this exhibit left out any pictures the Chicago Tribune could have taken of white criminals, crime scenes and victims or the news media is just not taking pictures of them to document for us and posterity.
Was this an aesthetic and artistic choice, to deliberately feature “people of color” as color photography is introduced into the exhibit?
Was this a pedagogical choice, to demonstrate and polemicize technical photography skills involving contrast and focus and shade, as well as digital photography advancements available in the technology age, best done with colorful tones, even those manifested in the range of human complexions?
Was this a salacious commercial choice, with the arts so underfunded that graphic photographs of savage and hysterical blacks are more likely to draw the public’s interest, to lead to more donations left in the gallery entrance’s tip jar?
No matter what, it was a heartbreaking reality: when people think of violence and crime in America “Now,” black people and faces and neighborhoods and thugs and cornrows and weaves and babies and baby mamas leap to mind first.
People are usually surprised, if not disbelieving, they have to consider any others. This is what leads to the polluted minds and people who are quick to shoot for minor suspicions or fast to punish black children for typical growing pains. It is why so many of my black friends, and myself, have been kicked out of stores for appearing frustrated or for protesting disrespectful treatment. It is why we have trained ourselves to endure whites’ corrections of our mere humanness including fatigue and stress should we jump out of line on jobs, when any refusal or disagreement can come across as “mad” and “threatening.”
It is why innocent teens and young people who are the “minorities” in certain neighborhoods and colleges can feel the air change or tensions rise when they enter a room, show a serious disposition, or are just too tired to act jokey and gay in order to assuage the “Other’s” potential fears. It is why you are to “talk proper [white],” carry ID, stay cool, dress appropriately and prepare yourself to answer at any time to the steadily reinforced stock data associated with blackness in America: dumb, scary, threat, the criminals right NOW.
This is why Trayvon, R.I.P., was shot for absolutely no reason whatsoever, beyond the dirty and polluted imaginations of whites who invented his thugness.
The least prejudice photo in the collection is of a corpse shot perfectly perpendicular to a city street and covered by a sheet, blood spots and pointed toes of the victim’s feet apparent. The neighborhood, blurred out of focus in a vertical border to the sad center of the photograph, was nondescript. It only had many trees and cars parallel-parked in affectionately-known inner city tightness. It could have been the North Side, South Side, West Side or East Side of Chicago. It could have been the suburbs. In this non-descript context with a hidden body, the viewer must look at crime beyond gender and race and class. Crime is crime. Life is life. Death is death. Loss is loss. Human is human.
Crime Then and Now: Through the Lens of the Chicago Tribune runs through April 11 at Roosevelt University’s Gage Gallery, located at 18 S. Michigan Avenue in downtown Chicago.