In 2000, Fototeka’s founders discovered thousands of Los Angeles Police Department negatives housed in a city warehouse in conditions that made them vulnerable to decay and created a fire hazard. Fototeka was granted unprecedented access to the negatives by the Chief of Police and the City Council, which tasked the gallery with creating an archive of selected images. In keeping with Fototeka’s mission of preserving the archive and making its images available to the public, in 2001 the gallery mounted the first-ever photographic exhibition of Los Angeles Police crime scene photography with the support of then-Councilman Eric Garcetti, along with former Police Chief Bernard Parks.
The images in the Fototeka Collection of Los Angeles Crime Scene Photography on view at the House of Lucie were not originally intended as art. They are crime-scene photographs, shot between 1925 and the 1970s by Los Angeles police officers in the line of duty — as evidence. Through curation and presentation in a gallery setting, they achieve a secondary purpose, offering a real-life window into a world familiar to present-day viewers through film noir. But in their stillness and their basis in real-life situations, the photographs have a power altogether different than that of film noir, much as did the documentary work of Weegee and Walker Evans.
The drama of circumstance have imbued these black-and-white images with layers of meaning, heartbreak, and even humor the officer-photographers likely did not intend. Some images have become iconic. A wide shot of a bridge over the LA River in rainy season (1955), a body sprawled in the riverbed, while three men in plainclothes talk among themselves has become emblematic of the collection. A smashed-up car in 1929 looks as if it were staged for exhibition. Some of the images show homicide victims; others incidentally capture detectives at work. Virtually all of the negatives are coded by hand by darkroom technicians, whose handwriting styles vary. The old-style furnishings, clothing styles, and automobiles tell us this is of another time; but ironically the violence many of the images relate, after-the-fact, make these people from another era — victims and investigators alike — seem human and real, their noir-ish surroundings an accident of history. Rarely is the presence of a photographer as witness felt so strongly as in these images.
The current exhibition brings together images from Fototeka’s original 2001 exhibit with those of Paris Photo Los Angeles, which was mounted in 2014 at Paramount Pictures Studios. Many of the photographs in this show have not been exhibited in over 15 years.
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