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Just Images: American Policing and Popular Culture, 1840-1920


"Just Images: American Policing and Popular Culture, 1840-1920” examines the historical relationship between American policing and popular culture from their contemporaneous antebellum origins through the Progressive era. The dissertation argues that the histories of policing, media, and commercial popular culture have been connected for much longer than most citizens, critics, and scholars have assumed. Placing these histories alongside one another establishes the moments of convergence, interaction, and mutual construction that allow us to reconceive the formation of American policing as a cultural history. “Just Images” offers new insight into how the role of police in American society developed over the 19th and early 20th centuries by first establishing that the historiography of policing is inevitably a part of the historiography of mass culture in the American city, not an adjunct to it. Realigning these otherwise disparate historiographies demonstrates that popular culture changed how Americans thought about civil and political institutions in the same ways it led them to reconsider the practical and psychic dimensions of everyday life. The project is built on an assemblage of fragments, chiefly the print ephemera of popular culture, in order to circumvent the problem of access to institutional police records; “Just Images” argues that institutional histories are always already cultural histories.

This dissertation is organized into four chapters, all of which situate the changing practices and institutional self-perceptions of New York Police Department in the broader context of the history of mass and popular culture in New York City.

The first two chapters contend that modern policing invented itself—its material practices and theoretical foundations—through mass media and popular entertainment. Telling the story of the NYPD’s adoption of criminal identification photography alongside the development of commercial photography reveals that what we now think of a professional practice actually originated with contemporaneous developments in and of mass culture—e.g., the arrival of the cheap daily newspaper, the development of the portrait studio and the museum as sites of instruction for the city dweller, and new guides to etiquette and social surveillance. The ways in which new modes of viewing, spectatorship, and visual communication reshaped American consciousness also made new modes of policing conceptually possible. New understandings of celebrity, notoriety, character, and confidence also shaped ideas about what—and who—constituted criminality. Commercial photography was the source of both the material technologies and conceptual structures of modern policing. The latter two chapters argue that police began to play a direct role in manufacturing the cultural imaginary of policing in the Gilded Age. They drew on the new notions of publicity and celebrity and new modes of entertainment that were part of the transformation of the city into a metropolis. Each chapter also considers how cultural responses to major social and political crises shaped the development of the NYPD.

Chapters One and Two examine the history of the department’s adoption of photography as a tool for criminal identification and show that NYPD practices were directly informed by, and patterned on, the material and social history of photography. Chapter One reconstructs the history of the NYPD’s rogues’ gallery in order to suggest that it owed more to museum culture and portrait photography than to nascent criminology. Chapter Two demonstrates how the introduction of the carte de visite and the family photo album helped transform police photography into a specialized vocational practice. Chapter Three shows how famed NYPD detective Thomas Byrnes created the persona of Inspector Byrnes by drawing on the late 19th century idiom of celebrity and the print culture that manufactured and circulated it. Chapter Four considers how the emergence of the moving image changed Americans’ perceptions of city life and social order, the nature of film’s relationship to the politics of Progressive reform, and its role as a medium through which the police department could assert a new professional identity on the heels of a major corruption scandal.

When police administrators directly participate in the production process, these are acts of intervention and invention. Police can rewrite their popular histories and circulate claims to legitimacy that typically go unchallenged—but the ways in which we privilege the perspective of the police in American society conceals this process. Through their cultural work, police continually reinscribe as epistemic the idea of their importance to civil society, and the sphere of popular culture becomes the staging area for maintaining and updating policing’s usable past. Who the police tell us they are matters a great deal; the image they project conditions how we think about the police, what we expect from them, and what we will tolerate in American society.

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