In 2011, The New York City Municipal Archives substantially expanded our collection of records pertaining to the administration of criminal justice. We were given the opportunity to accession more than 200,000 photographs taken by the New York City Police Department from 1914 to 1975. Since that time, I have worked on a succession of state and federal grants to preserve this important resource.
This collection came to us in the condition one might expect from nearly century old photos. Many glass-plate negatives sat cracked and broken in their original housing, and the smell of deteriorating acetate film was overwhelming. But as I began cleaning and rehousing each individual negative, the inherent value became clear; I was seeing a version of New York City that had not been witnessed for three generations. I was taken on tours of speakeasies, tenements, and upper-class living quarters. I saw the effects of prohibition, the post-WWII drug trade, and the “French Connection” heroin smuggling ring in the 1960s. I became witness to the civil-rights movement and public cries to end the Vietnam War. Over the course of six years, I had the privilege of observing some of New York’s proudest historical moments, and some of its most unspeakable secrets.
In addition to providing rich glimpses into the history of New York City, the NYPD photos also raise questions of access and personal privacy protection. Photographs showing a collapsed building or a robbery scene are unlikely to offend, but how should images of a battered person or a corpse be viewed?
In 2012, Ki Suk Han was famously photographed on MTA subway tracks moments before his death, calling into question the ethics of photojournalism. Although ethics has been discussed among photographers for many years, this instance gripped public attention and outrage ensued. Sympathy and spite for the photographer was rampant as the front page of the New York Post went viral. In the end, very little was resolved, but it was clear that photography and ethics present complicated issues involving moral principles that are as diverse as the people who hold them. Five years after the published photo, the New York City Municipal Archives now faces its own battle with ethics, as we prepare to publish over 30,000 historic NYPD photographs online.
Notwithstanding debates among photographers and opinions of viewers, a crime-scene photographer’s role remains clear. The objective is not to discriminate, withhold, or sell, but to capture the subject entirely and accurately. It is for that reason that the images in this collection contain some of the purest glimpses into the eclectic past of New York City, as well as some of the most disturbing.
There are no secrets here at the Municipal Archives. It is our duty as civil servants to preserve and make historical government records publicly available. These particular records provide evidence of the full range of human experiences. It is important to understand that we will continue adhering to privacy laws applicable to this collection, while following through on our mission to make information about our collective history more accessible. Join me in discovering where that middle ground lies.
“History must speak for itself. A historian is content if he has been able to shed more light.”
-William L. Shirer