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Ruth Snyder in "Chair"

Date January 12, 1928
Location Ossining Westchester New York United States
Dimensions Image: 1 3/8 x 2 1/8 in. (3.5 x 5.4 cm)
Paper (Mount): 1 5/8 x 2 1/8 in. (4.1 x 5.4 cm)
Mat: 10 x 8 in. (25.4 x 20.3 cm)
Print medium Photo-Gelatin silver

Ruth Snyder, found guilty for the murder of her husband, was the first woman to be executed at Sing Sing prison. As photographers had been barred from documenting the event, Tom Howard, on staff at the Chicago Tribune, and working on assignment for the Tribune-owned New York Daily News, strapped a small camera to his ankle and attended the execution. The camera was equipped with a cable-release that ran up Howard’s pant leg into his jacket. Howard released the shutter at the moment that Snyder began to shake from the effects of the electric current.
This is a contact print from the single plate negative produced in the room. Written on the bottom of the print is an inscription likely by a newspaper staff member, “Ruth Snyder in ‘Chair.’” Eerie quotation marks around the word “chair” titles the image similarly to vernacular photography where the sitter is described as “sitting in chair,” or “seated.” The photograph featured in the newspaper the next day included the headline “DEAD!” and was enlarged, cropped, and straightened by newspaper editors. The uncropped, unaltered contact print provides a less-dramatic view of the legs of plain-clothed bystanders facing all directions, revealing that witness attention was not solely on the execution. The contact print is literal embodiment of what Roland Barthes referred to in Camera Lucida as the “eidos of death” translated onto film, reproduced infinitely, a unique moment of the past surging up into the present.
Kate Levy

Credit line

Museum Purchase, Robert Capa and Cornell Capa Acquisitions Fund, 2011

Feedback Accession No. 2011.22.1