Exploring Italy’s Unsettling 20th Century Forensic Photography
In a new series entitled Photography and Sensation we investigate photography’s versatile narrative and how it continues to shape our culture.
A couple of weeks ago 71a London exhibited Clue: Cold. The exhibition trails the history of forensic photography in Italy through unnerving yet absorbing photographs taken by criminologist Luigi Tomellini. We spoke to the curators of this fascinating exhibition to understand what makes forensic photography relevant today. And we were curious.
Perhaps the most striking thing about Clue: Cold is the starkness juxtaposing the sparseness of photographs within the gallery space at 71a. Immediately you get a sense of the atmosphere and time at which Tomellini took these shots – uneasiness is captured in photographs where the feet of bystanders margin the frame while a dead body lays hunched on serrated pebbles. A dead body with a bullet wound to the head.
This exhibition has travelled around European galleries for the last three years and now nears its conclusion with a catalogue launch of all the photographs. After his death Tomellini’s images disappeared only to be rediscovered in the 1980s. Curators Stefano Amoretti and Mino Tristovskij came across Tomellini’s portfolio through a collector who found the images. Through the exhibition they wanted to recreate the extensive research they had done during the process of analogue to digital printing.
Amoretti says: “A good part of the mystery or fascination of these pictures, at least for us, has been that for a long time we didn’t even know who the photographer was. That was only something we discovered with research.”
Tomellini worked as a forensic photographer in Genoa, Italy in the early 20th century. The relevance of these photos being shown now is both artistic and historical.
Amoretti explains: “I think there are two different qualities to these plates that make them important to be shown. The first one being aesthetic, I believe there is some sort of connection between human beings and death. We are very much connected and we’re very much fascinated and these pictures – being nice pictures, well exposed and well executed – create this link, which is to some extent disturbing. We don’t really want to see death but we kind of do.
“But also they prove to be historically relevant at least for Italy because the photographer probably introduced the techniques that became absolutely important afterwards for forensic investigations like the mugshot or it probably introduced the fingerprint in Italy.”
The role of forensic photography has changed since the 20th century with less emphasis being placed on it to convict a person, and with more advanced techniques such as DNA providing concrete evidence it seems forensic photography has taken a back seat.
However Amoretti adds: “I believe forensic photography is still immensely important and it’s very much used. What is nice nowadays is forensic photography has started to be analysed under another perspective. We are definitely not the first ones who have made an exhibition of forensic photography; there is more and more research in this field. During the last three years there have been many important exhibitions about this, even in London – Wellcome Collection, The Photographer’s Gallery – they all have made forensic photography exhibitions.
“People are interested and fascinated in seeing a depiction of death, which is close but not close enough to get scared. We are now more used to seeing these types of graphic images.”
The photographic plates of crime scenes, weapons, and bodies on slabs serve as part of a criminal jigsaw that aided Italian police at the time. In some ways these photographs seem to capture a societal reaction to murder unlike forensic photography today, where there is a deficiency of spectators at crime scenes or at least they don’t make an appearance in photographs!
It’s not easy looking at pictures of dead bodies for three years and as Clues: Cold draws to an end Amoretti explains what his intentions were with this exhibition.
“The rationale behind the way we have always displayed these images is very subjective. We’ve never wanted to impose a narrative to the viewer, a narrative would have implied that we knew how the story ended or started and we’ve never known that. We had some different pictures but we’ve never known how to relate one picture to the other. We’ve always tried to find the visual narrative that doesn’t necessarily imply who the killer was, for example, or what weapon was used, or where the location was. I think we managed to do that in the catalogue too. Everybody can create his or her own perspective or investigation.”
Tomellini’s work is cold but it is also mesmerising and it serves as a valuable documentation of 20th century forensic photography methods. And with the exhibition heading to its home city of Genoa it seems the photographs have come full circle.
For more details and to buy a catalogue of Tomellini’s work visit:
For more events at 71a visit:
71 Leonard Street,
Telephone: 020 7729 3675
Opening Times: Fri 10am-6pm; Sat, Sun noon-6pm during exhibitions.
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