The American Fascination With Crime

The ubiquity of criminal activity in contemporary culture reflects a long-held American obsession. Whether you devour mysteries and thrillers, believe Jesse James was a hero, enjoy sordid press photographs, marvel at a financier’s chutzpah, or lust after artworks by Andy Warhol, you see how the topic is manifested. The complex relationship between true crime and the American identity is also explored in vernacular photography.

Al "Scarface" Capone, Chicago Underworld Capo., silver print, 1929.

Our October 22nd sale of Photographs and Photographic Literature offers a unique insight into the attraction that everyday people find in Mafiosi and murderers: Al Capone, Lucky Luciano, Bugsy Siegel, among them. The exploits of such infamous figures were regularly reported in the media, throughout the 1920s and 1930s. With the introduction of Prohibition and the stock market crash in 1929, murder and mayhem spread rampantly.

The Great Depression led to more criminal activity. As John Dillinger was robbing banks in the Midwest, there was a national spike in petty crimes. Thus, many of these police lineups and mug shots are of regular folk who turned to crime during a period of economic hardship.

Folio size mug shot album with silver prints of criminals, circa 1913.

The mug shot, perhaps the least glamorous of photographs, is an entirely purposeful form of documentation. Yet, within the context of a society increasingly fascinated by crime, it can be seen as a great equalizer: celebrities, socialites and common criminals are pictorially treated in the same manner. And, these images have a shelf life that long outlasts the criminal’s wrongful acts.

Mug shots have also been immortalized in contemporary artworks. In 1964, Andy Warhol created his Most Wanted Men series, adapting N.Y. Police Department mug shots in his silkscreens. By rendering 13 murderers and con men, Warhol elevated the status of these immoral characters. For him, the star system did not discriminate: “Nowadays if you're a crook. you can write books, go on TV, give interviews—you're a big celebrity and nobody even looks down on you because you're a crook.”

From Mysteries of Life, a unique album featuring Los Angeles Police Department
crime photographs compiled by Lt. James Roy Harlacher, silver prints, 1917-42.

This collective obsession with crime remains unabated. The 24-hour news media takes glee in sensationalizing celebrity scandals, and Hollywood recycles lurid histories into colorful stories for the silver screen. As children we were taught “Crime doesn’t pay,” but, perhaps the aphorism needs an addendum, “unless you have an agent.”

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