Last night at the Museum of Printing History, some very nice folks got together to witness a few stabbings, some hijackings, more than a couple beaten wives, a kidnapping or two, a pistol-packing barkeep, a heroin bust, a attempted suicide, a raid on a titty show, and several bloody corpses. They looked up-close at a madman's broken teeth as he twisted and tumbled into custody, hands cuffed, captured after having busted loose from an area psych ward. They speculated about the bloody clothing on several unidentified persons, unsure whether they were perpetrators or victims. These were the subjects of the photographs at "Bayou City Noir: The Photography of Marvin Zindler."
The show as conceived by Houston Chronicle blogger J.R. Gonzales who first discovered Zindler's photos in microfilm research through the old Houston Press, a sensationalistic afternoon tabloid that specialized in the seedier aspects of life in 1950s Houston. And Houston in the 1950s was plenty seedy, a violent place that earned a national reputation in those days as the murder capital of the USA. Marvin Zindler was a freelance photographer, his first journalistic foray, listening to the police radio and rushing to every crime scene. From there he became the celebrity journalist we came to know and love for his restaurant reports, his advocacy on behalf of the indigent, and his astonishing sense of style. Before the plastic surgeries and the wicked blue shades, he made his name shooting pictures of Houston's brawlers and toughs. Though the photos in this exhibit are a far cry from the decades of television work he did later, there are elements in common: the riveting story, the prurient detail, the special experience of the newsreader - or gallery-goer in this case - to peer up close, while at a safe and mediated distance, at the miseries of others.
At the additional distance of 50 or 60 years, these photos invite a greater sense of play on the audience's part. We were impressed to see repeated subjects, like Patricia Bowman, who ran Pat's Lounge at 1608 N. Shepherd, today the site of a used car lot. In a photo from October, 1952, she is posed holding a telephone receiver to her ear: Zindler didn't bother much with journalistic ethics, restaged events, manufacturing visual detail, and in other photographs obviously egging on the culprits or witnesses. Patricia Bowman, it was reported, had received telephone threats against her life, just before three bullets came crashing through her establishment. Another photograph just six months later accompanies another likely story. Patricia Bowman came across a juvenile burglar attempting to rob her place and she ran him off with her own gun, calling his bluff when he predicted she wouldn't fire. This photograph shows her talking with police officers ("L-men" they were called then) still holding her pistol.
The casual and humorous style of the Press can make the stories frightening and hilarious at once, like "Husband Was 'Acting Cute" - Now He's Dead." You might laugh at the premise, and plenty did last night, but the image and subsequent detail strike a balance: A distraught woman is staring at something awful, sobbing into her fist, near collapse, and being held up by a man on either side of her, each with a just-lit cigarette hanging from his mouth. She'd thought the gun was unloaded.
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Zindler wasn't shy of shooting pictures of corpses: They are laid out on sofas and in doorways. He was partial to vice crimes, taking pictures of confiscated booze and dancing ladies. "Torrid Toni" was an audience favorite, a self-described artiste, a stripper really, who seemed perfectly at ease in the custody of the law. She retained her Rita Hayworth figure and used it in all the photos Zindler took of her, turning just to the side, arching her back, looking askance with a friendly smile.
What explains the relative absence of people of color in this show? Before the Civil Rights Movement made racial confrontation a regular part of the beat, were black neighborhoods simply passed over by the white police force? Or did Zindler avoid rushing alone with his camera into black neighborhoods? Or was it the Press that wasn't interested? We have a single photograph of a black man: a signal of the changing times. He'd been firebombed in his own house, having moved into the predominately white south Houston neighborhood of Riverside Terrace. The photo shows him standing in his kitchen in his robe, smoking a cigarette, his own pistol on the table in front of him.
So many pistols and shotguns, so many soldiers come home, so many families uprooted and on the move, no wonder Houston was such a frightening, dangerous place. This show offers a glimpse of those dark times through the lens of a newsman often more interested in making the news than just reporting it. Nevertheless, Zindler's work provides a rich and revealing portrait of a city by way of its most wretched citizens.