Photographer and visual artist Melanie Pullen resurrects the morbid fascination with women, beauty, and death in her exhibit “High Fashion Crime Scenes”. (Be warned that the collection features graphic images that some may find disturbing.) It is currently on display at the Museum of Contemporary Art at Jacksonville in the Atrium Gallery from July 16th to November 6th. According to an article from The Florida Times-Union, Pullen’s inspiration came from Luc Sante’s “Evidence,” a collection of crime scene photos taken in New York City from 1914 and 1918 as well as archival images from Los Angeles Police Department and coroner’s offices.
The exhibit pieces, shown in floor-to-ceiling hanging prints, are equal parts haute couture and seedy murder. The artist states that the gritty exploitation in “High Fashion Crime Scenes” highlights the dehumanization of victims and the sensationalization of publicized murder cases and trials. The women’s corpses seem to be reduced to the level of mannequins, mere displays for expensive items that can be bought or sold.
In the late nineteenth century, one of the pioneers of crime fiction, Edgar Allan Poe wrote in The Philosophy of Composition, “the death of a beautiful woman, is unquestionably one of the most poetical topics in the world.” Even before Poe, the Victorian cultish kitsch for tragic death dominated art and literature of that era. The death of a beautiful woman, in particular, is no foreign subject—from the watery grave of Ophelia in Shakespeare’s Hamlet to Poe’s Annabelle Lee.
Tess Gerritsen’s article on Muderati, “Why Dead Women Sell Books” points out the overwhelming number of female victims in crime novels and how this phenomenon is becoming a commodified fetish. In his 1916 essay On Transcience, Sigmund Freud writes that the transient nature of beauty induces a foretaste for grief and mourning. The death of a woman, especially a young and beautiful woman, heightens the helpless outrage one feels towards the brevity of youth and ephemerality of beauty. The volatile and fickle world of fashion, with its endless convolution of standards of beauty, is the perfect haunted graveyard. The balance between beautiful and grotesque is in constant flux. In this light, there are definite similarities in the worlds of high fashion and crime fiction.
For more articles on the characterizations of women in crime, please click our tag for Feminism. To read the on-going discussion on victimizing women in fiction, also check out the articles “Was Nancy Drew My First Victim?” by Wendy Crutcher, and “Victimizing Our Heroines” by J.T. Ellison.
All images © Melanie Pullen High Fashion Crime Scenes