LA Cop Photos Offer Glimpse of History

The crime scene photograph is the basic stuff of police work, and most pictures taken by police photographers are never seen outside of a courtroom.

Taking pictures as a volunteer for the Los Angeles Police Department, photographer Rick Morton began to ask: What happened to all the images taken by police photographers for 75 years before him?

"I thought I would be sent to some office and there would be two or three file cabinets and I could look through and find something," Morton told ABCNEWS.

What he found instead were police archives stacked to a warehouse ceiling, and inside, sometimes buried in old case files, hundreds of thousands of photographs. Morton, his wife Robin Blackman, who owns a gallery, and police Lt. John Thomas have looked through 20,000 pictures so far.

"You're taking negatives out of sleeves that hadn't been touched in over 70 years," said Morton.

They found pictures of the aftermath of the Watts riots in 1965 when Los Angeles' South Central neighborhood erupted into violence, and booking photos of the infamous murderer Charles Manson. One murder scene is in a shipyard with detectives standing in fog under the yardarms of sailing ships.

They also discovered public relations shots like one of a friendly officer helping out a woman and her daughter, and a picture of an officer who was a crack shot, holding up his paper targets riddled with holes.

Some photos are even humorous. There's one of motorcycle officers lined up for doughnuts. According to former chief of police Martin Pomeroy, no one is quite sure whether the picture was taken as an inside joke. "Half of us think this was staged, just for fun, and the other half think no, they really were lined up for doughnuts," he said.

There are several pictures of the first generation of women police officers standing in a row at the shooting range in skirts, heels and bobbed hair, all holding revolvers. Morton calls that shot "girls with guns."

‘These Pictures Are Indeed Art’

But what most surprised Morton were the works of art — pictures taken in the routine of investigating crime that had mood, composition, and something more than just a snapshot.

"If by art you mean something that touches you, that gives you insight, can make you laugh, can bring a tear to your eye, that can inspire, then by that measure these pictures are indeed art," said Pomeroy.

Possibly the most stunning is a picture of three detectives beneath a high arched bridge, standing 10 feet from the body of a murder victim. It's foggy and the concrete is wet. The detectives have their backs turned to the body and high up on the bridge, two men are looking down. It looks like a shot from a film noir of the 1930s and '40s.

The photography curator from the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Tim Wride, helped pick the best shots for a display that will eventually tour the country. "They're about stories, histories and it's perfect that it's in Los Angeles, these cinematic, sometimes operatic histories," he said.

There is a historical photo of a detective standing near the dismembered body of Elizabeth Short, known as the Black Dahlia, and possibly LA's most famous murder victim. "It's almost as if that's the establishing shot, the shot from which you then dolly in to begin the story," said Wride.

In another picture two men are slumped over in a restaurant booth where they were caught eating spaghetti. Blackman, the owner of the Fototeka Gallery, says there's a story behind that. "They had eaten there the night before and came back a second night and asked for the same seats, and the same meal, everything exactly the same," said Blackman.

Wride noticed that there were many images of feet, suggesting violence, and giving small clues to a victim's last moments. "There were all these images of feet. Sticking out from the edge of the frame, on the bed protruding from a doorway," he said. "It was pretty amazing."

Flirtation With Hollywood

Morton and his colleagues also noticed that the work of some photographers stood out, as if they were trying to do something a little more than take pictures of the evidence, trying to tell a story.

Wride wondered aloud: "You know, is Hollywood mimicking what the police photographers had been doing for some 20 years up to that point, or was the Hollywood imagery responsible for how these photographers began to se the images they were photographing?"

The LAPD's flirtation with Hollywood is a common string found in many of the photos. One picture shows former Chief Parker, who made the LAPD a modern police force, with Jack Webb of Dragnet, who gave the LAPD its Hollywood image.

When he started looking, Morton found that some of the negatives, taken before the days of safety film, were beginning to bubble. They were a fire hazard and many were moved to a safe location, but thousands were destroyed.

There are still many thousands more to look at. "I think there's hundreds of thousands of images I would love to look through and I think there's treasures in there," Morton said.

They are treasures that were never really lost, but still have to be found.