Murder, My Sweet

Whispering of St. Paul's hidden lives (and deaths),a new photojournalism exhibit shoots to kill

Not all of the pictures in Strange Days are so macabre, of course. Even at its most sordid, sleepy old St. Paul could never compare to Weegee's Naked City. It would have been a slow night in Gotham indeed if Weegee were covering (as did the Pioneer Press on June 23, 1948) a "bathing beauty" contest at the regional convention of the American Taxicab Association, or (on April 12, 1953) Mrs. Oscar Getchell's 47-year-old fern. Yet the most innocuous shots in Strange Days, many of them cheesily staged, also speak volumes about the times. For instance: a 1961 photo of Herb Garske in a well-stocked backyard nuclear fallout shelter; or a 1960 image of racial integration at a Minneapolis Woolworth's lunch counter. Even Roy Dickerson's 1952 portrait of two elaborately wimpled nuns carries the sharp, distinct flavor of a now-vanished world.

"One of the things about these guys is they were close to the ground," Millet says. "They were integrated into the community in a way journalists aren't now, so there's this element of these being like family photos. Back then, if you were having a church supper, you'd call up the paper and say, 'Hey, come on over,' and they'd send a photographer."

But there's a reason Millet didn't call his book Quiet Days, Unexceptional Nights: For all the shots of prize-winning vegetables, Winter Carnival revelers, or now-leveled St. Paul landmarks, it's the crime and accident photos that remain the most riveting--precisely because they're the kind of pictures you'd never see in a newspaper anymore.

Ouch! The aftermath of a car accident captured by photographer Dick "Buzz" Magnuson
Minnesota Historical Society Press
Ouch! The aftermath of a car accident captured by photographer Dick "Buzz" Magnuson

There's a noticeably callous streak running through them, too. Take, for example, the photo of a woman who's just jumped off the Lake Street Bridge. It's a forlorn winter day--the last day of 1944, in fact. A few firemen are looking on from the river's edge. The woman's body is a sad little bundle far across the ice. The picture says as much as could be said about loneliness and isolation. Yet some editor has circled the body in black ink, then drawn an arrow down from the bridge to indicate the woman's gravity-assisted vector.

If nothing else, Strange Days is a useful corrective to the notion that today's media are uniquely or even especially sensationalistic. Can you, for instance, imagine today's Pioneer Press covering the murder of an Anoka County sheriff's deputy with a photo of the man slumped across the front seat of his car, brains leaking onto the snow outside? Or then, the next day, following it up with a photo of the deputy's grieving widow and six children looking in shock at the previous day's newspaper? In fairness, that first gruesome picture only ran in the morning edition before being pulled. But the point remains: If the media today often seem shallow and salacious, some of the photos in Strange Days leave the impression of downright sadism.

So what changed? According to Millet, newspaper audiences began to lose their taste for sensationalist imagery in the '60s. "The societal end of it is very odd, because now, in television, and movies, and the internet, there are much more graphic depictions of violence than this. I mean, I was watching CSI last night, and it was about transgendered people being murdered during sex-change operations. I think we're in a state of denial: We don't want to look at this stuff in newspapers anymore. But these guys didn't think about it that way. They chased the news, and if they got the picture, they put it in the paper."

And the era of these photos was also a time when newspapers mattered in a way they simply don't today. The advent of television news, changing public tolerance for violence, and the increasing fustiness of newspaper owners were already conspiring to make this sort of rough-and-ready tabloid fare a thing of the past. Newspapers ceded ground to television, began their slouching retreat from the front lines of civic life, holed up behind the barricades of bourgeois taste. The revelation of Strange Days, its implicit, melancholy insight, is that this decline went hand in hand with the decline of urban America. For all the carnage and chaos these photos capture, perhaps the book's most telling image is its last one, an aerial shot of a vast, treeless subdivision in Cottage Grove. Call it "Death of the City."

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