Going back in time with the LAPD

Times Staff Writer

A man lies on the tiled floor illuminated by the afternoon sun as blood streams from a head wound, out an open door and onto the sidewalk.

The grisly incident, immortalized by one of the Los Angeles Police Department’s crime scene photographers, was shot inside a dark hallway in July 1932, after a deadly shooting at a Vermont Avenue jewelry store.

Another vintage black-and-white image, circa 1955, shows several detectives in fedoras and overcoats standing over a dead body in the rain-swollen Los Angeles River.


Still another offers a tight shot of a sofa and bloodstained newspaper, leaving the clear impression that an unseen victim met an untimely end.

The prints are part of an immense photographic archive discovered earlier this decade that was tucked away in a corner of the LAPD’s downtown evidence storage facility.

Once slated for destruction, the collection of nearly a million pieces -- the majority of them film negatives -- span from the Prohibition era to Woodstock, a period of prolific growth in Los Angeles.

Besides violent crime scenes, LAPD cameras captured the mundane: A police officer directing traffic along Broadway; a vehicle mangled in an accident; mug shots; close-ups of evidence such as spent bullets and, in later years, commemorative and promotional shots of a department that, through television shows like “Dragnet,” was gaining worldwide attention.

Those who have worked with the collection, including selecting prints for shows and a coffee table book published several years ago, say that beyond the aesthetics, the photos speak volumes about the evolution of the city and changes to policing.

Early crime scene photos have a more artistic quality even in the most gratuitous scenes, said Tim B. Wride, who has curated an exhibit of the photos.

“The photographers enlisted by the Police Department to document situations were photographers first,” Wride said. “They became police who were photographers, and then police who were photographers and knew forensics. As you professionalized the department, you professionalized the pictures.”

Eventually, the photos appeared “more sterile,” said Wride, as the photographer’s eye became secondary to how the photograph fit into an investigation and prosecution.

What’s captured by the camera was also changing, according to Merrick Morton and his wife, Robin Blackman, archivists for the LAPD collection.

The rise of Los Angeles’ automobile culture in the 1920s and beyond can be seen in the scores of photos documenting car crashes.

Pictures of oversized tin cans chronicled a bygone era when police went after bootleggers.

For a time, there were also shots of empty refrigerators to show child neglect, until governmental welfare agencies took over that function.

In the 1950s, there was an abundance of safecracking cases and a marked increase in evidence of drug paraphernalia and the narcotics trade.

By the mid-1960s, police had expanded into another area: undercover surveillance.

“Along with evidence, they were documenting clandestine behavior,” Morton said of the photography during that era.

There were pictures of hippies who frequented clubs on the Sunset Strip, “love-ins in Griffith and Elysian parks,” and even Muhammad Ali’s appearance at an antiwar rally in Century City, Morton said.

Blackman noted that as the decades went on, the number of crime scene photos jumped exponentially, mirroring the growing population and the commensurate rise in crime.

By the 1960s, taking photographs of violent crimes such as murder had become almost a daily occurrence, Blackman said, whereas before, they would be snapped every few days.

“More people, more crimes, more killing,” Blackman said. “Everything just got bigger.”

Once the postwar era was in full swing, the LAPD’s image became important, not only to attract new police recruits but to cultivate the professional, spit-and-polish culture demanded by Chief William J. Parker.

Photographers who were taking photos of a stabbing one day would participate in staged scenes for PR purposes the next.

Such images included shots used for recruiting billboards. Others were of celebrities such as Bob Hope, Sammy Davis Jr. and Jack Webb, which were used in the LAPD’s in-house magazine.

In surveying the entire collection, Wride said, he laments that in many ways “the imagery contained in it has become less interesting because it became more utilitarian.

“They need to fulfill a very prescribed function,” he said. “But that’s not to say that people 50 years from now won’t find them interesting for that very reason.”