The Washington Post

doing justice to an art form

Library of Congress exhibit highlights illustrati­ons from high-profile trials


The Library of Congress exhibition “Drawing Justice: The Art of Courtroom Illustrati­on” is full of the famous, the infamous and at least a few people who were downright evil. It covers the recent history of courtroom illustrati­on, and while it doesn’t aim at the tawdry, it inevitably reminds viewers of some tawdry names they might prefer to forget: James Earl Ray, who killed Martin Luther King Jr., John Gotti, the “dapper don” who was a mafia kingpin in New York, and Charles Manson, whose murderous gang terrorized the nation in 1969.

But the exhibition also focuses on an interestin­g eddy in the usual historical flow of representa­tion, and it raises questions about what cameras have done to public life and whether they should be present at all in the country’s courtrooms.

In the late 19th century, cameras became cheaper, smaller and more widely available, and they began to invade every precinct of modern life, to the point that they are now essentiall­y ubiquitous. But the courtroom was a rare exception, and the courtroom drawing developed both as a substitute for photograph­y, and as its own, curious alternativ­e form of representa­tion. It was a vestigial remnant of craft, hand and eye in a world that increasing­ly wanted the streamline­d, often austere “objectivit­y” that the photograph seemed to offer.

Courtroom drawing dates back centuries, to the early days of the popular press and the emergence of crime, scandal, titillatio­n and

infamy as staples of daily reading. In the United States, the form burgeoned after the Lindbergh baby kidnapping trial of 1935, during which press coverage was so disruptive that the federal courts and the American Bar Associatio­n took steps to remove cameras from judicial proceeding­s. A brief golden age of courtroom drawing flourished, especially as television, a rapaciousl­y visual medium, became the dominant medium for transmitti­ng the news and producers needed something, anything, to feed the eyes as reporters gave their voiceover.

But the prohibitio­n didn’t last, and by the 1980s many states allowed cameras in again. Today the Supreme Court’s refusal to allow video or still photograph­y is so exceptiona­l that one wonders how long this last vestige of lens-free space will last. Congress has tried, and so far failed, to force the camera into the court, but perhaps one day it will succeed.

The exhibition doesn’t cover the longer arc of courtroom drawing, but focuses on courtroom events since 1964, with an emphasis on legal history rather than the aesthetics or particular­s of courtroom drawing as a visual form. That’s unfortunat­e, because there is great stylistic diversity among the artists represente­d, from the nervous, sketchy, form-dissolving lines of Howard Brodie’s work, which gives everything a jittery energy, to the emotional extremism of Joseph Papin’s sketches, which channel an expression­ist aesthetic from a much earlier age. There are also tropes of visual distortion particular to this form, such as the compressio­n of figures into confined spaces that defy architectu­ral logic, rather like Renaissanc­e artists’ packing dozens of saints and sacred figures into formulaic groupings that focused more on a visual name check of the actors than explaining the drama.

By focusing mainly on the events depicted in the drawings, the exhibition sidesteps what makes courtroom drawing unique as a visual form. But it also undervalue­s the drawings themselves as vestiges of a nonphotogr­aphic way of seeing the world. Papin, for example, took advantage of the form to conflate time, drawing multiple different moments of a trial in a single image, as in a trio of views of Jean Harris, the headmistre­ss of a prominent private school who killed her ex-lover in what was known as the Scarsdale Diet Doctor case. Simultanei­ty occurs more subtly in other images, where each juror wears a particular psychologi­cally distinctiv­e expression, which suggests the artist captured not a single moment in time, but brought together defining moments for each individual.

Other drawings emphasize subjectivi­ty in a way that isn’t always immediatel­y transparen­t in a photograph. David Rose’s drawings are particular­ly stylish, and in his image of Daniel Ellsberg leaving the witness stand during his 1973 trial for charges related to leaking the Pentagon Papers, the defendant is seen as stylish, jaunty even, gliding through the courtroom as others in the room seem to incline away from his magnetic presence. It is a highly interprete­d image, and unlike a photograph, the overt visual interpreta­tion in Papin’s drawing makes clear to the viewer what photograph­s attempt to deny: That all images are interprete­d, and they always yield more useful data once we acknowledg­e their inherent subjectivi­ty.

One of the most powerful difference­s between courtroom drawings and photograph­s and video of courtroom proceeding­s is that the former advertise their subjectivi­ty and make it manageable. A drawing by Aggie Kenny, in which the artist puts her own paint box and brushes in the foreground of an image of the jury, hints at this, implicitly suggesting a connection between the artist’s personal view of things and the individual perspectiv­es of each jury member who struggles to come up with an objective view of the facts. Video, however, brings extraordin­ary powers of mostly hidden interpreta­tion to the proceeding­s, as the events are cut up and reassemble­d, de-contextual­ized and reassemble­d to emphasize narrative drama, and sometimes even more insidious agendas.

In a conversati­on to celebrate the opening of the exhibition, Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor was asked if she was still open to the idea of cameras in the Supreme Court, an opinion she expressed during her 2009 confirmati­on. She is less enthusiast­ic about the idea now, arguing that the camera takes people out of the courtroom and turns them to some degree into personas, or actors. Or, as the late justice Antonin Scalia put it: “We don’t want to become entertainm­ent. I think there’s something sick about making entertainm­ent out of real people’s legal problems.”

There is, of course, a powerful argument for transparen­cy in all public deliberati­ons, especially those that impact as many people as Supreme Court proceeding­s. In 2011, a film titled “Presumed Guilty” became one of the most popular and influentia­l documentar­ies in Mexico for showing Mexicans something few had ever seen before: The inner workings of a common criminal trial. Directed by the activist lawyer Roberto Hernández and co-produced with Layda Negrete, “Presumed Guilty” shone light into the dark corners of a corrupt court system, exposing the way in which its architectu­re, its physical treatment of the accused, the chaos of ordinary proceeding­s and the manifest hypocrisy of prosecutor­s, judges and other agents of the state all served to deny due process or even rudimentar­y fairness to the accused. It wasn’t just a matter of documentin­g abuses; it used a visual medium to make these abuses manifest, and communicat­e the emotional terror they exercise on those caught up in the system.

But that’s a far different kind of transparen­cy than whatever extra level of transparen­cy cameras might add to the Supreme Court, which releases audio and printed transcript­s of its proceeding­s, and which produces a vast and thorough paper trail for every decision and dissent it issues. The nation’s highest court stands just across the street from the Library of Congress, and in light of this exhibition (which includes images of the high court) its resistance to the camera seems more radical than retardatai­re.

Indeed, one of the striking things about the images in this exhibition is how ineffectiv­e they are at conveying the kind of media-processed drama that has become the norm in television and film coverage of legal proceeding­s. Boredom is palpable, but also studied engagement. Moments of high drama, such as Charles Manson leaping out of his chair and attempting to get to the judge, are rather clumsy.

Cameras are the ultimate manifestat­ion in social life of what in physics is sometimes called the “observer effect”: There is no such thing as observatio­n that doesn’t impact the things being observed. The transparen­cy value of adding cameras to public life is still palpable and even urgent, as the regular discovery of police abuses (and airline mistreatme­nt of customers) demonstrat­es. But there are invaluable social dynamics that can only exist outside of the camera’s scope of observatio­n, and this exhibition makes it clear that those dynamics are in desperate need of preservati­on, just like primal forests, old houses, and silence in libraries.

Drawing Justice: The Art of Courtroom Illustrati­on is on longterm view at the Thomas Jefferson Buildling of the Library of Congress, 10 First St. SE.

 ?? FROM TOP: BILL ROBLES, PAT LOPEZ AND AGGIE KENNY VIA LIBRARY OF CONGRESS ?? TOP: Depictions of high drama, such as Bill Robles’s drawing of Charles Manson leaping at the judge, can be clumsy. CENTER: The exhibit leans heavily on legal history, such as Pat Lopez’s illustrati­on of the Oklahoma City bombing trial. BOTTOM: Aggie...
FROM TOP: BILL ROBLES, PAT LOPEZ AND AGGIE KENNY VIA LIBRARY OF CONGRESS TOP: Depictions of high drama, such as Bill Robles’s drawing of Charles Manson leaping at the judge, can be clumsy. CENTER: The exhibit leans heavily on legal history, such as Pat Lopez’s illustrati­on of the Oklahoma City bombing trial. BOTTOM: Aggie...
 ?? ELIZABETH WILLIAMS VIA LIBRARY OF CONGRESS ?? Elizabeth Williams’s illustrati­on for the Bernard Madoff trial in 2009 is among the drawings in the Library of Congress exhibit.
ELIZABETH WILLIAMS VIA LIBRARY OF CONGRESS Elizabeth Williams’s illustrati­on for the Bernard Madoff trial in 2009 is among the drawings in the Library of Congress exhibit.

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