What Happened to Crime Photography?

Joseph Schuster, center, was identified by robbery victims as the killer of policeman Arthur Sullivan, 38, of the Marquette station on Jan. 14, 1937.

Copyright Chicago Tribune

This post contains graphic images.

In 2013, two things happened at the Chicago Tribune that eventually led to the exhibit “Crime Then and Now: Through the Lens of the Chicago Tribune,” which is on display at the Gage Gallery at Roosevelt University in Chicago until April 11.

In 2013, Tribune editors began poring through the storied paper’s photography archives, starting with boxes of celebrity pictures and then moving on to envelopes marked “Bandits” and “Robbers” that dated to the early 20th century. At the same time, the paper revamped its crime desk, creating an overnight beat for reporters and photographers to cover breaking news between 9 p.m. and 9 a.m.

Betty Nelson and Rosella Nelson view the body of John Dillinger at the Cook County Morgue in Chicago. In the days after Dillinger was killed on July 22, 1934, massive crowds lined up outside the morgue to get a glimpse of the notorious public enemy. 

Copyright Chicago Tribune

Chief defense attorney and noted Chicago lawyer Clarence Darrow makes his case for life sentences before Judge John R. Caverly in the murder case against Richard Loeb, 18, and Nathan Leopold, Jr., 19, in the summer of 1924. 

Copyright Chicago Tribune

Richard Loeb and Nathan Leopold Jr. stare at each other after each gave seperate confessions to the killing of Robert “Bobby” Franks on May 21, 1924, in Chicago.

Copyright Chicago Tribune

The two bodies of work that emerged—one vintage, the other modern—inspired Tribune photo editor Michael Zajakowski to propose “Crime Then and Now,” which he co-curated with Gage Gallery’s Tyra Robertson. Seen together, photos from the complementary collections provide a compelling look at the evolution of police and media relations, as well as concurrent developments in the nature of crime reporting. 

In the 1930s and ’40s, newspaper photographers used 4-by-5 Speed Graphic cameras with flash bulbs, which necessitated a more formal, deliberate approach to image making. Back then, criminal kingpins like Al Capone and John Dillinger were eager for press coverage, and they frequently posed for photographers. 

“In the old days, photographers were very much working with the police. They were stationed at police precincts, and they’d be sitting next to the sergeants when calls came in—they’d be able to run out to a scene and get there sometimes even before the police,” Zajakowski said. 

Today, photographs of crime are vastly different. Crime bosses are no longer mugging for cameras and photographers are kept at a greater distance from crime scenes due to a decline in trust between police and newspapers. In response, crime photographers today tend to focus less on capturing the immediate, often gory scene after an incident. Instead, they continue to cover stories long after the initial crime, taking the time to follow up with victims and loved ones for more emotionally driven narratives. 

The body of Omar Castel, 17, lies in the intersection of 36th St. and Marshfield Ave. in the McKinley Park neighborhood of Chicago on Aug. 23, 2013. The boy had been shot twice, one of the wounds to his head.

E. Jason Wambsgans.

A Forensics Services investigator photographs the scene where a 16-year-old was found with one or more gunshot wounds and later pronounced dead on Sept. 20, 2014. 

John J. Kim

“We’re not just going to a crime scene, photographing what’s there and walking away,” Zajakowski said. 

The journalism business has also shifted since midcentury, and the Chicago Tribune, like other papers around the country, has seen cuts to its photography staff. Still, Zajakowski said, the Tribune is dedicated to covering crime, which continues to be a major issue in the city. The demand for that coverage from readers, meanwhile, is as high as ever, making it perhaps the one element of crime that will never truly change. 

Deonta Howard, 3, a victim of a mass shooting in a South Side park, is released from the hospital after plastic surgery on Sept. 25, 2013. 

Chris Sweda

Judy Young, center, whose 6-month-old daughter Jonylah Watkins was killed in Chicago on March 11, 2013, is surrounded by family and friends at the scene of the shooting the day after it occurred. 

Nancy Stone

A woman comforts a 21-year-old male who sustained multiple gunshot wounds on Aug. 3, 2014, in the 800 block of North Orleans Street in Chicago.

Anthony Souffle

“What I see is an ongoing fascination with crime. It’s a fascination with what causes people to act in these ways and what the consequences of their actions are and how they impact all of us.”