WARNING: Some of the images below are disturbing.
This article originally appeared on VICE Italy.
At the beginning of the 20th century, Luigi Tomellini worked as a forensic photographer in Genoa. His photographic plates were an essential tool for local police investigations at the time, but somehow they were lost after his death—and only recovered in the 1980s. The pictures are beautiful and macabre, as well as a valuable record of old forensic photography techniques.
“There’s a long and troubled story behind these plates,” says Stefano Amoretti, a cultural and creative industries student at the City University London. “Riccardo Sezzi found them in an abandoned suitcase in Genoa back in the 1980s. It was an entire portfolio containing images of people killed seventy years before, but he didn’t know what to do with them, so he just kept them in his home until 2013. That year, we developed the plates together for the first time, in a darkroom we set up in his bathroom.”
Amoretti, Sezzi, and photographer Mino Tristovskij put together an exhibition of these historic pictures, called Clue: Cold. The exhibition has traveled across Europe, and last week marked the launch of a catalog with the images.
Suicide, probably by hanging. Scan from original plate, 18×13 cm, 1910s
“The photographs are incredibly dramatic,” Amoretti tells me. “The one with the man on the checkerboard floor, for example. The position of the corpse; the perspective so meticulously dictated by the walls and the floor; the man in a diagonal position; the unmade bed—it looks like a scene from a movie.”
After the discovery of the portfolio, it was unclear for a long time who the photographer was. “But then Aldo Padovano, a Genoan historian and writer, managed to connect a specific plate to a newspaper article that mentioned that Professor Dr. Tomellini had visited the crime scene to take ‘quite a few’ photographs. Everything sort of fell into place form there: Tomellini was an important academic professor at the University of Genoa at the time. He was probably the first to introduce innovative recognition techniques, such as fingerprinting, to Italy. “
Body on a morgue table. Scan from original plate, 18×13, 1910s
Every picture tells a different story vital to the curation of the exhibition. “There’s one image, in which you can see a poster of the premiere of La Bohème that took place in Genoa on January 27, 1912. That picture was crucial in framing the historical moment. Other plates contain names, and others are interesting from a technical point of view. But there are also some extremely fascinating plates that don’t even have any context. Take the knives, for example, or the bullets—those are the same motifs made famous by pop art decades later.”