New Exhibit Looks at Crime Photos in Chicago

Roosevelt University's Gage Gallery worked with the Chicago Tribune for an exhibit that compares and contrasts photographs of crime and criminals. From Al Capone, Leopold and Loeb, and John Dillinger to the recent wave of gang and street violence, the exhibition explores how crime reporting has evolved over the decades. 

Read an interview with Gage Gallery Founder and Director Michael Ensdorf.

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How did the exhibition get its start?

At the Gage Gallery, media adviser Tyra Robertson and I wanted to do something different, in terms of the exhibition season.  And we decided to bring in a guest curator, something we’ve never done before. The first person we agreed on and went to was Chicago Tribune Photo Editor Mike Zajakowski. We had lunch with him and asked him to bring ideas for an exhibition.

He came with a handful of ideas, one of which was the John H. White exhibition, which just closed. The other was photographs from the Tribune’s archives—crime photos from the ‘20s and ‘30s. It’s fascinating work. We also had a discussion about making it more contemporary—more about current issues, not just showing past historical photos of crime. And the Tribune was, at the time, beginning to focus more on overnight crime and dedicating photographers to that beat. There was a lot more attention being paid to crime in the city, more than in the past. We decided to pit the two bodies of work against each other.

We wanted to make some very important comparisons and distinctions on the coverage of crime in the past and today. There are many differences in the two bodies of work: black and white versus color, the sharp, detailed images in the ‘20s and ‘30s and the looser style in the digital work of today. But also, access is very different today—access to crime scenes that police allow. All the differences are present in the exhibition. It really does call attention to the differences.

What will a viewer take away from visiting the exhibition?

I think that one of our goals is for viewers to see just how very different the photojournalistic approach to crime has been. How very different it has been, in terms of technology, the way the photos look, and the way you’re impacted by the photos. But there’s also just the changing nature of crime over time in Chicago.

It’s a very limited view of only 60 or 70 photos. There are obviously more out there. So we’ve tried to create an experience for the viewer, transporting them back to the past, and then back to the present in a powerful way.

How is the show organized?

The way we’ve organized the show is a direct jump.  It’s not a progression. It focuses on two distinctive bodies of work. In the exhibition, the last photograph of the archival work is of John Dillinger’s corpse on a slab, with people observing it and looking at the camera. The next photograph [from present day] is someone who was gunned down and laying the middle of the street, with a sheet covering the body. That shift is a very electric moment. There’s a lot of friction in that little shift.

Is there an array of featured photographers, or are there a select featured few?

It’s an array of photographers. We don’t have a lot of individual photographer information from the ‘20s and ‘30s. But we certainly do for the contemporary work.

Any particular standouts that you’d suggest a viewer “must see?”

Certainly, there are ones that are emerging as very popular, like the images of John Dillinger. And I think with the way the show has been curated, the individual photographs all pack a punch. They’re really powerful, both form the past as well as the present.

What’s different from the past to the present? There’s a fair amount of attention being paid to the aftermath of crime. There’s more of an emotional impact. Often time, the photographers are there right after the crime took place. There’s a lot of interaction with the bystanders—people grieving, emotionally distraught. It’s a rollercoaster ride of emotions.

What’s next for the gallery?

We have the next in the “Above the Fold” series. The third exhibition is the Chicago Reader in Black & White. It’s work from the ‘70s, ‘80s, and ‘90s of the Reader, back when they devoted a lot more space to photographic imagery. Freelancers had a lot of opportunities to shoot and publish. So it’s a large group show, and we’re still working out the details. It opens June 4.

Interview has been condensed and edited.

View a slideshow of images from the exhibit.

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