The photograph is of a young white woman with dark hair. It’s a frontal portrait captured approximately a foot from the subject. The lighting is flat, the shadows minimal. It’s difficult to place the subject’s mood, as she appears caught somewhere between hazy diffidence and an arched smile.
These are the remaining descriptively neutral details I can recall of the photograph. For this is the one picture to which I refuse to subject my eyes and I have successfully managed not to look at it for the last 10 years. (I did not look at it in the course of writing this text.)
The picture is an autopsy photograph of Elizabeth Short, more commonly known as the Black Dahlia. The other details that I recall of the portrait come from some place between my first, and only, experience of the photograph, and the knowledge I have, through textual sources, of the circumstances of the subject’s gruesome death.
Elizabeth Short was an aspiring actress from Massachusetts who migrated westwards to Hollywood in search of fame and fortune. Her naked, dismembered and exsanguinated body was found in Los Angeles early one morning in January 1947. She was 22-years-old. The circumstances of Elizabeth’s murder are unclear but it is believed that before her death she was tortured, with a knife, cigarettes and a baseball bat, for somewhere between 36 and 48 hours. The cause of death is conjectured to be either a result of the extensive cranial trauma she received from sustained beatings, or from substantial blood loss as a consequence of the deep facial wounds that spread outwards from the corners of her mouth. Many of Elizabeth’s injuries, including the severing of her body into two parts, took place post-mortem. Her killer has never been identified.
I first learnt the grisly details of Elizabeth’s death through an edition of the BBC’s Arena series in an episode titled Feast of Death. The programme looked at the twin obsessions of its subject, the American novelist James Ellroy: two contemporaneous events of early 1947, the death of his mother and the death of Elizabeth Short. Each an unresolved homicide that, in Ellroy’s memory, had become a single murder.
It was also during the course of the programme, in a set-piece that saw Ellroy holding court at a restaurant table, flanked by LAPD officers past and present and, bizarrely, the actor Nick Nolte, that I had my one and only flash of the consequences of Elizabeth’s ordeal. As Ellroy recounted her story of her murder, a black and white still occupied the frame as the author’s voice coiled the table and the tale. The image features Elizabeth, twelve hours dead and framed by the silver of the autopsy table, mute as one can be, but with a face full of detail. The compressed face, half-lidded eyes, a deep permanent smile etched into her once beautiful face, all the more brutal for the absolute lack of any blood. Just bruised flesh and a record of what one person can find it reasonable to do to another.
I encountered this image in the cold bedroom of my adolescence at my mother’s house. My memory tells me I was 15-years-old but IMDb informs me that the Arena programme was produced in 2001, making me at least the same age as Elizabeth at the time of her death. These circumstances, I believe, that have gone someway towards defining my relationship with this image, this momentary flash of Elizabeth’s brutally disfigured face, thrown unexpectedly towards me in a darkened room, a room that I previously occupied and tried some of my growing up in. It caught me off-guard, attacked me in a way I no longer thought possible of images, even back then in that supposed den of warmth.
Ever since that moment, I’ve rehearsed the reconstruction of the image, over and over, mis-shaping Elizabeth’s face and her injuries through multiple visitations. Rehearsed the reconstruction of that first viewing and the unavoidable mental aversions that accompany (I have a hard time even when I smell the images’ proximity). I’ve legitimised that image, reassured myself that I’ve seen worse (I don’t doubt I have). Yet still this image haunts me like a spectre of my own making. Not like a spectre of my own making – it is a spectre of my own making.
These hazy details I recall, filtered through ten years of flawed reconstruction and anxious avoidance. So, why do I still talk about this picture and why do I write about it here? Why do I suggest others take a look when I pointedly refuse to? I think it’s a need to spread my sick stomach with regard to this picture in an attempt to mitigate its command over me. Others who I have shared this story with, who I have suggested look at the picture, often come back with comments challenging its severity and questioning my devotion to it. And for them perhaps it isn’t that bad.
The reason I hold this image, this photograph, so dearly in fear is my awe at its power over me in relation to all other images my eyes have seen, do see and will see. That my susceptibility to the power of imagination that this photograph conjures can be so potent and enduring, can make me feel younger and more vulnerable, can undo my heard-earned indifference to images. In an era where every wrong can be, and more often than not is, recorded and scattered for all to see, that this inert, matter-of-fact photograph can hit me so hard. That, I think, is a strange kind of wonderful. But no, I won’t be taking a second look myself.
Editor’s note: The photograph discussed above was taken in 1947 by a Los Angeles forensic police officer and can easily be found through various internet search engines. For reasons related to the content of the text it has not been included here.
Jamie Shovlin is a British artist who lives and works in London. He is interested in the tension between truth and fiction, reality and invention, history and memory. He is an artist whose work combines extraordinary facility as a draughtsman, printmaker, painter and writer with conceptual complexity and playfulness.