Time in its passing casts off particles of itself in the form of images, documents, relics, junk. These forms repose in cardboard boxes and closets, in old houses and attics, in filing cabinets and mini-storage warehouses, in museums and libraries. In a great city such as New York there are collections of artefacts and bone-yards of information everywhere. One such collection is the Municipal Archives, which occupies a lower corner of the old Beaux-Arts Surrogate’s Court building at Chambers and Centre Streets, and which contains birth and death and marriage records, the files of former mayors and district attorneys, the leavings of city commissions and departments. It is cool and well-lit, not musty, and every day researchers and genealogists sit at the microfilm readers dowsing their way through copies of, say, the 1895 Police Census, looking for a faint footprint that may have been left there by someone who cannot be recalled in any other fashion.
I worked there as well and on my third visit, I was approached by the director, Kenneth Cobb, who wondered if I’d be interested in seeing the Police Department photo collection. A library cart was wheeled out from a back room, laden with fifteen fat ring-binders in archival boxes. As soon as I pulled out the first volume and began leafing through the pages of prints, my eyes widened. Nothing in the reams of photographic documentation I’d sorted through–countless inert pictures of buildings, posed ranks of functionaries, fuzzy views of empty streets–had prepared me for this. Here was a true record of the texture and grain of a lost New York, laid bare by the circumstances of murder. Lives stopped by razor or bullet were frozen by a flash of powder, the lens according these lives their properties–their petticoats and button shoes and calendars and cuspidors and beer bottles and wallpaper. The pictures were not just detailed documents, either, but astonishing works in their medium. I thought I had come across the traces of a forgotten master, who seemed to prefigure the pitiless flashlit realism of Weegee while having affinities to Eugène Atget’s passionate documentary lyricism. A style announced itself, deliberate and inimitable.
Confusingly, the photographs in the albums were organized by no principle that I could detect. Although there were 1,400 images in the collection, considerably fewer were actually represented by prints: the negatives were glass plates, many cracked, ruinously chipped, or their emulsion stuck to the envelopes in which they had been stored. The captions were erratic. A truly enigmatic image might yield up no more information than ‘homicide victim male interior’. The most I was able to ascertain was that the pictures dated from between 1914 and 1918, a slice of the New York Police Department’s documentation that had been extracted, shaken up and then dropped.