Saturday, April 3, 2010

Murder Miniatures

Scenes of murder, mayhem, and doll furniture..........

The incredibly detailed miniature dioramas of Franses Glessner Lee are featured in a book called The Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death (essay and photos by Corinne May Botz), New York: The Monacelli Press, 2004. Lee, a master criminal investigator, a grandmother, and founder of the Department of Legal Medicine at Harvard in 1936, was also captain in the New Hampshire police. In the 1940's and 50's she built doll house sized crime scenes based on real cases in order to train detectives to assess visual evidence.

Still used in forensic training today, the book contains wonderfully detailed images of the eighteen Nutshell dioramas that were painstaking built by Lee. The window shades work, the newspaper has text on it, the pencils write, all at a scale of 1:12. Everything is there: the furnishings, wallpaper, carpets, clothing, blood stains, and spent cartridge casings. She made all the clothing and even hand-knit a victim's underwear using thread and straight pins.

The book includes annotations, diagrams, details and clues that you, the reader, use to trace and understand the actual events depicted by the model. Some details and answers are withheld, as these dioramas are still used by the police for training.

Death by misadventure has spawned a whole series of books and websites that border on what one might call trauma-porn. Grotesque images "borrowed" from police files of gunshot head-wounds, major physical trauma, etc. are not something that has any redeeming aesthetic qualities.

We sometimes find re-published collections of crime-scene photographs usually compiled by law enforcement officials as a record of cases they were involved in from before the advent of databases and officially organized forensic records. Many detectives used photography as a personal notational record, or maybe a perversely morbid scrapbook. Some of these are fascinating, although sobering when we face actual images of the fragility of the human body or the outcome of the dark side of human violence.

The use of photography as a forensic tool began with the famous Alphonse Bertillon, a late 19th, early 20th C. French police officer and biometrics researcher who created anthropometry, an identification system based on physical measurements. Anthropometry was the first scientific system used by police to identify criminals. Before that time, criminals could only be identified based on unreliable eyewitness accounts. The method was eventually supplanted by fingerprinting, but his other contributions like the mug shot and the systematization of crime-scene photography remain in place to this day. [text from wikipedia]

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