Cyanide and Sin: Visualizing Crime in 50s America

Will Straw

Cyanide and Sin offers a broad history of the true-crime magazine in America with an emphasis on its visual content during the 1950s. With 196 color illustrations, Will Straw, a scholar teaching in the Communications Department at McGill University in Montreal, Canada, has written a 12,000-word essay that traces the stylistic and conceptual evolution of the crime-magazine genre. He catalogues specific photographers and key designers who were regular contributors to the various magazines.

Many of the images reproduced both within these magazines and on their covers were setup reenactments of crimes, some fictive, others real. Often, the images are accompanied by campy headlines such as: Death Crashes A Party, Love Me or Die!, He Was Too Hot To Cool Down.

There have been numerous publications on the history of pulp and crime fiction. Cyanide and Sin is the first book to look at the impact of the visuals used to accompany these stories.

As Straw writes: “Crime lent itself readily to some of the most powerful impulses within modern image-making. It gave photographers drawn to social marginality subjects with which to avoid the sentimentality that too easily clings to images of the poor or downtrodden. Crime photography has served as the basis for transgressive violations of good taste, and for romantic glorifications of the doomed life. The images assembled in true crime magazines over their 80 year history have moved ceaselessly between what photographic historian Allan Sekula calls the honorific and repressive functions of photography. Images celebrating an extravagant individuality, for instance, have sat alongside others calling for citizen complicity in the enforcement of state power.”

PPP Editions, 2006
An edition of 3,000 copies, the entire edition.

4to.; color photographs; yellow wrapper, color photographically illustrated jacket on recto, black and white on verso.

︎︎︎ Exhibition