back to

A glimpse of old New York through NYPD crime photos


At the NY Review of Books blog, Luc Sante tells the fascinating story of a recently uncovered trove of NYPD crime scene photos from the early and mid-twentieth century. Sante writes that the photos, which he calls surprisingly beautiful, provide an eerie glimpse into a New York that has almost completely disappeared:

The 1926 photos have much in common with their counterparts from the previous decade. Police photographers—who included a few of the same people—were still employing bulky plate cameras, using wide-angle lenses (although perhaps not quite as extreme as in the earlier pictures), and lighting with magnesium powder. The slow decay of the flash, combined with the length of the exposures, softened edges and created penumbras, which goes a long way toward explaining the otherwise unaccountable lyricism of these images of death and destruction. Much of the subject matter is likewise familiar: murders, suicides, a few burglaries. Nevertheless, times have clearly changed. There are multiple car crashes, subway accidents, raids on speakeasies and gambling clubs, and, overwhelmingly, illegal stills. During Prohibition, bootleggers erected stills in all sorts of places, but particularly favored abandoned houses, where a still might be positioned—awkwardly—behind the door of an apartment, perhaps tall enough to poke through the ceiling to the floor above, with tubing running into closets.

The pictures are of undeniable photographic significance. Not every one is a masterpiece, but all display patient craftsmanship in their framing and lighting, making them seem lapidary, even definitive. Every picture is a tableau, complete unto itself. In addition, besides preserving the physical facts of important events and highlighting trends and aberrations in social behavior over the decades, the pictures record innumerable details of the appearance and atmosphere of the city in those decades. From them you can learn what kitchens looked like, how grocery stores decorated their display windows, how much trash accumulated in the street, what hazards attended the operation of open-top flivvers, and all about the wild variety of social clubs, illicit and otherwise, fancy or outré or irredeemably basic, that occupied an awful lot of the real estate in any era. They provide a vital and even visceral link to the city’s past, at a time when three-dimensional remnants of that past—buildings, along with their occupants—are being eliminated every day.

Image: A dead body in front of a church on 86th Street, Queens, May 13, 1926. Michael Lorenzini/Municipal Archives. Via NYRblog.