Brutal however cinematic documentation of the NYPD murder division
Until 2018, the NYPD had never in its history granted a photographer access to its homicide division — which isn’t wholly unsurprising, when you consider both the grizzly nature of the profession, and the innumerable misconduct scandals that have plagued the NYPD over the years.
However, for two years (2018-2020) New York-born photographer Theo Wenner was granted unprecedented access to NYPD’s most prestigious homicide division in Brooklyn, which is responsible for the area of the city with the highest murder rate, capturing the detectives and what goes on behind the scenes up close.
Documenting their day to day lives, we see the mundane moments; police whiling away time at their desks and detectives letting off steam in the most macho, cop-drama sort of ways — smoking huge cigars and chugging whisky. Sombre men in hats and Columbo-style raincoats are crammed into cars that look somehow too small for them; and there are far more grizzly, impossibly sad scenes, where bodies are strewn in rooms, shared apartment block hallways, and being zipped up into body bags.
According to Homicide publisher Rizzoli, Wenner’s work follows in the long and storied tradition of crime scene and police photographers like Weegee and Jill Freedman, whose work aims to reverse the romanticised view of cops seen on TV and in the movies and instead present straightforward, unfiltered documentation.
“Wenner is drawn to specific worlds with their own codes and traditions,” says Rizzoli. “His photographs focus the viewer’s attention on personal details, routines, and rituals; how his subjects dress, where they eat, their social circles — quotidian details that reveal the lives his subjects lead before and after the shutter clicks.”
In many of the images it feels impossible that they’re so recent: it wouldn’t be hard to believe they were shot in the ‘70s or ‘80s, thanks to the muted colours, unusual textures and even the clothes of the subjects themselves. Wenner’s skillful image-making makes Homicide feel powerfully cinematic in the dramatic interplay of light and shadow. Likewise a number of the images feel eerily similar to the vertigo-inducing apartment block staircase shots from Polanski’s The Tenant, spiralling down into darkness.
Thanks to the stylishness of Wenner’s images, and his decision to include a number of photographs that seemingly have nothing to do with homicide – such as the sparkling lights over Brooklyn’s night skylines, or a street scene showing the snowy New York winter – it can be easy to forget the gruesome subject matter at the heart of Homicide.
The book features an introduction by journalist Michael Daly, who has covered crime for the New York Daily News over the course of two decades. “These are not high-profile killings that draw news photographers, save for perhaps in the immediate aftermath,” Daly writes.
“There is only Wenner, who stays long after he could have just grabbed a shot and departed… Homicide is homicide, be it back in the days when the city saw more than two thousand in a year or more recently, when the body count dropped below three hundred. Wenner’s lens does not tally. He preserves and makes indelible details of individual enormities that the rest of the city barely registers. Here are images from a realm apart.”