Virtually everyone recognizes the yellow tape that blocks access to a crime scene, but only people like Angela Strassheim, who worked as a forensic photographer, know what really goes on behind those yellow lines. It's not exactly pretty, but it makes for some mesmerizing images in Strassheim's "New Pictures" show at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts through Oct. 9.
Take "Evidence No. 10 (Blue Star)," a large, black-and-white shot of a darkened bedroom in a spacious, upscale home. The corner of a bedstead is visible in the background, and a door stands ajar. But it's the glowing panel in the picture's center that catches attention. Two sweet baby pictures hang there, surrounded by a fine silvery mist that puddles onto the floor, lapping over the carpet like an incoming tide. Hypnotic and haunting, the misted panel seems to twinkle and pulse in the darkness.
That would be the blood. Or rather, traces of DNA that remain even after a murder victim has been carted off, blood stains scrubbed away, and the room repainted and given a new identity as someone else's home.
There are five such photos in "Evidence," all taken on the sites of what Strassheim calls "family-related homicides." The "Blue Star" in the pictures' titles refers to a luminescent blood-sensitive chemical that investigators use to uncover traces of DNA at a crime scene. It is so sensitive that it has even been used to detect DNA still present at Civil War sites, said David Little, the museum's photo curator.
Five smaller color pictures document the exteriors of murder sites to which Strassheim was unable to gain access, residences ranging from a little white-clapboard row house to a generic New York apartment building, an imposing Southern estate and a posh Beverly Hills mansion -- scene of the infamous 1989 Menendez murders in which two privileged sons, 19 and 21, slaughtered their parents with "two Mossberg twelve-gauge shotguns," as Strassheim dryly titles that photo.
The potential to sensationalize such subjects is huge, and Strassheim does a brilliant job of not going over the line. The dark, monochrome images are large, up to 40 inches tall by 48 wide, in order to capture interior details at twilight when the chemical works best. The exterior shots, taken at midday, are smaller and more mundane, relying on their curious titles -- "small rod, kitchen knife," or ".357 caliber revolver" -- to suggest something awry. While the black-and-white scenes have a subdued glamour, they never seem cinematic or theatrical, hovering instead on the cool edge of photo documentation. The color pictures too are crisply informative but more matter-of-fact than glitzy. All are cunningly artful, but not so aestheticized that they glamorize death or divorce their subjects from the nitty-gritty world of police work.
A life in crime
"I always knew I would make this body of work from the first time I experienced Blue Star in the field," Strassheim, 41, said recently. "A light bulb went on. I saw the potential of that whole idea as an art form. But to get the images to look the way they do took a lot of trial and error."
Besides testing different chemicals, she had to research crimes, locate sites, persuade residents to let her into their homes, and then take photographs that "would show the trail of blood in the rooms," she said. Of the 140 residences she went to in dozens of cities nationwide, including Minneapolis, she gained access to just 18. One was the home of a woman who had discussed her experiences on Oprah's television show. Another was an apartment rented by people who didn't know it had been a crime scene until neighbors told them. "They wanted out of the lease and I had to pay them for access," she said.
An Iowa native who grew up in Minneapolis, Strassheim graduated from Minneapolis College of Art and Design in 1995 and then, because "everybody needs a job," enrolled in a 10-month forensic imaging program in Miami. Forensic imaging "doesn't mean death necessarily; it means photographing for the law," she said. There she learned how to document everything from fingerprints to DNA, from gunshot wounds to homicides and anything that would help a medical examiner determine cause of death. Plus she did "search and seizure photography at airports and seaports and went in with SWAT teams for big drug busts," she said, adding "I'm there after all the events have happened, but the body is still on the scene."
After six years of such work in Florida, Virginia and New York City -- including photographing autopsies of 9/11 victims -- she was more than prepared for Yale, where she earned an MFA in photography in 2003. Inclusion in the 2006 Whitney Biennial jump-started her career. Her first fame came from images of too-perfect families in candy-colored suburban environments, the scenes often staged with creepy undercurrents of sexual perversion and manipulative control. Her new series was sparked by the 2008 economic collapse and myriad Ponzi schemes that were accompanied by "a lot of family violence," she said.
"All of my work is about my life and experiences," she explained. "I could never go into an emergency room and deal with people bleeding and crying and in pain. That would be too much for me. But dealing with a crime scene and the aftermath is very different. It's very quiet and like putting a puzzle together after the fact."
Mary Abbe • 612-673-4431