Cyanide and Sin.
Visualizing Crime in 50's America.
Text by Will Straw.
PPP Editions, New York, 2006. 192 pp., 196 four-color illustrations, 9x12".
Though there has been a rehabilitation of just about every imaginable genre of pulp/lowbrow culture over the past three decades, no one has really tackled the hermetic world of true-crime magazines, until now. Will Straw's book is, thankfully, visual candy, but it packs a lingering burn too. While its museum-store-worthy design makes it obvious that it's a serious book (one that you don't have to hide before your mother drops by), it's really an act of analysis and an act of homage at one and the same time. The popular true-crime genre, which emerged from 18th- century broadsides and their
successors, 19th-century penny tabloids, was reflected in the 1950s in the highbrow world (In Cold Blood), and in more lavish popular fictional entertainments Hitch-cock's Strangers on a Train, Dial M for Murder, or Rear Window, for example). The magazines' lurid, breathless banners (A Private Eye in Sinner's Paradise; Baby, I'd Kill To Keep You; I Was an Easy Money Honey; Hot-Rod Killer Kids; Acid!; Clobbered!), sensational covers, and staged reenactments mixed with actual police photos were stitched together into a bizarro parody of "straight" photo-essay magazines like Life. The readership was enormous until the advent of TV true-crime programs; the last of the original magazines closed its doors in 2000.
Like most pure genres, true-crime is actually a hybrid of its many antecedents, and has closely related siblings (such as true-confession magazines). There are certain contradictions, though. The publishing business was headquartered in urban areas, but the documented cases usually take place in out-of-the-way, windswept country hamlets (think the Bates Motel), or along secluded stretches of road. While each case is unique, most follow the expected roadmap: blood, babes and booze, sprinkled with lead, lucre and palookas. Any larger context that might condition crime is simply assumed, never explained. Individual crimes of passion, preferably with a twist, are the staple, though there are many morality tales that demonstrate how a few wrong decisions lead to lives of vice.
Straw has uncovered a treasure house of little-known images that mimic the gritty look of early Robert Frank, though the stagy sensibility is often pure Weegee. He estimates that, over the fifty-year life of true-crime magazines, five million photographs were added to American visual culture, most uncredited. Who were these unsung artists? What became of them? Acid! Bullets! Booze! Clobbered! PHIL HARRIS
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