October 8: Morbid

8Can photographs satisfy our morbid curiosity?

On this date in 1961, Tom Howard died. He was an American photographer  for P. & A. Photographs during the 1920s.

He took what has become one of the most famous photographs of an execution, that of murderer Ruth Snyder, at Sing Sing Prison on 12 January 1928. The trial and its gruesome revelations had attracted enormous media attention.

Photographer unknown (1928) Press photographers wait outside the courthouse for a glimpse of the accused

There have been countless photographs of executions since the invention of photography, but Howard’s, published in the tabloid New York Daily News under the headline ‘DEAD’, caused a sensation, given that, unsurprisingly, photography of state killings had been banned in the United States. That’s because it’s an ugly business, perhaps more evil than the deed that brought the accused to this end, because in its cold blooded legality it lacks the passions of revenge or hate that prompted the action being punished.

Even in 1920s America, publication of Howard’s photograph alerted readers to its cruelty and prompted calls for the end of capital punishment. There are qualities in Howard’s image that stand out for their emotional effect on the viewer, where other images are mundane, despite the gravity of their subject.

To get his picture Howard resorted to the use of a concealed camera, strapped to his ankle under his trouser leg and operated with a release in his jacket. img_1758Camera shake, a Dutch tilt, accidental cropping and front-focussing make it haphazard, and on the man’s upper leg in the centre foreground you can see a sign of double exposure quite different from the camera shake on the woman’s dress on the right. Howard tripped the shutter twice in order to be sure of an exposure in the dim light, and the man, whose pose seems almost casual, has shifted his stance between the exposures. Interestingly the woman appears to have turned away from the spectacle.

Howard’s camera was medium-format, custom-made to fit his ankle, and fitted with a lens with leaf shutter typical of the hand held bellows cameras of the era. The focal length is short in order to make the camera compact so the field of view is wider than desired by the picture editor.


When the photograph published the next day is tightly cropped and retouched. It contains little visual information about the subject, yet the emotional impact is remarkable!

Snyder was the co-accused in the case, the actual killing being done by her lover. She left behind a 9 year old daughter.

Howard became well-known for this photograph. Picture Snatcher (1933), a Warner Brothers-First National Film starring James Cagney is about an ex-con who becomes a photographer for a tabloid paper and sneaks a camera into Sing Sing Prison to snap a  photograph a woman being executed in the electric chair.

The movie version of the photograph is a stark, well-focussed close-up, made somehow with a Leica lookalike with a short lens, with a result quite unlike Howard’s original with its photographic facture; the indistinct traces that engage the beholder.

Poster for Picture Snatcher (1933) directed by Lloyd Bacon. With James Cagney, Ralph Bellamy, Patricia Ellis, Alice White.

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