Unmoving Images: Portraits by a Monster

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What does it mean to look at a photograph? As a viewer, our eyes look directly upon what the photographer saw, framed, shot. We imagine a before and an after, a series of events. And because we are essentially behind the camera with the photographer, we imagine ourselves as part of this series of events. This is one of the awesome implications of looking at photographs; what separates it from other artforms. We are the artist; we create the story; we see the frame as the artist saw it.

This is what makes viewing the photographs of serial killer Rodney Alcala, released by Huntington Beach Police Department in 2010, so disturbing. There is a recent trend of glorifying the artwork of convicted serial killers and high-profile criminals. John Wayne Gacy’s work has shown up in numerous galleries, and an exhibition of his work was slated to go up in a Las Vegas space in 2011. The infamous London Kray brothers’ art recently auctioned, and Charles Bronson sent his mother on a (presumably mortality-free) holiday with the sale of his work earlier this year. But these works were all created during incarceration, possibly as part of an art therapy program. And though the people and places portrayed may very well be based on real live subjects, the artist is  sitting in a jail cell, so the resulting work is largely imaginary, coming from the prisoner’s own headspace. Alcala’s photographs are not like this, and Alcala is no outsider artist as criminally insane artists are often determined to be.

Alcala studied at UCLA’s School of Fine Arts and later NYU Film School (with Roman Polanski) in the early 1970s (under the name John Berger – though it’s doubtful he knew his pseudonym would inextricably link him with looking, seeing). He would have studied all aspects of filmmaking, including composition and some still photography. He brushed shoulders with New York’s social elite (the rape and killing of which he was indicted and convicted of 40 years later). Alcala wasn’t an outsider. He was a professional photographerwhose artistic process was a tool in his murder M.O.

Alcala’s  photographs of beautiful young women mostly feature care-free, smiling or contemplative subjects. Some of the women have come out after seeing the photographs upon their release in 2010, stating that a man offered to professionally take their photographs. At least three of Alcala’s victims were seen posing for him before disappearing, and others had appointment books stating they were to be photographed before their own disappearances. Alcala’s camera was the accessory to his murders.

It’s almost difficult to not make the connection to Peeping Tom’s Mark Lewis (another industry insider), who turns his own camera into a murder weapon. There are two very real differences. The first is that Lewis was turned on by the fear created by his actions, filming women in distress, watching their own deaths. Alcala’s photographs are remarkable in that they show almost no signs of stress or worry*. It is this supposed calm that presents the viewer with such a contradictory emotional reaction. As the viewer, we see the moment in time, captured very much as it was. How can we intellectually align what we know of the photographer and the events that followed with what we see in these women’s faces and body language? We feel danger for them, we feel fear for them. And yet, they show none of that themselves. It is a real life horror film being replayed in still shots. We know we can’t go back in time and warn them to get out of there. We are looking at what appear to be beautiful photographs of attractive women but we know better. Our impotence is truly frightening.The inability to do anything combined with the horror of sharing Alcala’s view through his viewfinder aligns us with this monster. We see as he sees and yet we do nothing (can do nothing) to stop him.

Of course. The other very real difference between Mark Lewis and Rodney Alcala is that the latter is real. He has admitted to raping, repeatedly strangling, and killing at least two women in New York City in the 1970’s. He’s been convicted of another five, two of whom were children. If we are to assume that each of the women photographed in the set of images released by the Huntington Beach Police Department are all possible victims, Rodney Alcala may have kidnapped, raped and killed over 120 women.  Mark Lewis, on the other hand, is safely confined to the celluloid reels on which he was created. Alcala is still working on the California Justice System to overturn his death penalty sentence.

Under other circumstances, these photographs would be incredibly poignant and nostalgic records of women living during the age of free love. Instead they are some of the most uncanny and terrifying photographs I’ve ever seen.

*There are a smaller number of photographs that seem to be taken without consent, across crowded beaches/parks, or where the victim seems to realize danger. This may well be the editorial decision of the Huntington Beach Police Department.