In ‘Crime Unseen,’ Violence Is All Around Us

BY James Melia  December 8, 2011 at 2:40 PM EDT

Click to enlarge. “Charles Irvin Fain” by Taryn Simon, from the series, “The Innocents.” Courtesy of the Museum of the Contemporary Photography at Columbia College

Crime has long fascinated the imagination, from Sherlock Holmes to film portrayals of Al Capone and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid to TV shows such as “Law and Order” and “Dexter.”

Why are we attracted to crime? What is so irresistible about the sensationalism and romantic exaggeration of violence? The Museum of Contemporary Photography at Columbia College in Chicago examines the attraction in the exhibit, “Crime Unseen.”

The exhibition, which collects the work of eight photographers and a series of images from the now-defunct Chicago Daily News, all deal, in one way or another, with crime.

In his series, “Redheaded Peckerwood,” Christian Patterson looks at the killing spree carried out by teenage lovers Charles Starkweather and Caril Ann Fugate, who in the winter of 1957-58 murdered 11 people in Nebraska and Wyoming. Their story is near myth in those states and was the basis of Terrence Malick’s 1973 film, “Badlands,” and Bruce Springsteen’s song “Nebraska.” It was also the inspiration for other movies, including Oliver Stone’s “Natural Born Killers” (1994).

Patterson’s photos follow Starkweather and Fugate’s path, recreating scenes while mixing fact with fiction, blurring the line between memory and imagination. Patterson “pokes holes in our history,” says exhibit curator Karen Irvine. “The series revisits our past because it’s always important to consider how much we trust photography and its implications.”

The question of trusting photographs is at the heart of Taryn Simon‘s work, “The Innocents.” Simon photographs those wrongly convicted of violent crimes at key sites — the place of the murder, the location of the alibi — to directly confront what Irvine calls the “malleability of memory” photography can accomplish.

In her series, “Evidence,” Angela Strassheim shows how places can have a memory. Strassheim photographs rooms that have been sprayed with the chemical Bluestar, which reveals blood stains washed away. The photos juxtapose the banal and domestic with the violent — a family room with the television on against blood splattered the wall. The evidence of violence is all around us, even when we don’t see it.

“All of these events, these works, confront us with human nature. They show that humans have an evil side,” says Irvine. “I guess it’s just hard for us to fathom really, to understand that these things happened. But that reinforces, in a way, that we are mostly good people in a secure existence.”

“Crime Unseen” at the Museum of Contemporary Photography at Columbia College is on view through Jan. 15. And for the squeamish, Irvine says, “There’s nothing too gruesome. For a show about murder, there’s not one dead body.”