The Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death
The Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death is an exploration of a collection of eighteen miniature crime scene models that were built in the 1940's and 50's by a progressive criminologist Frances Glessner Lee (1878 – 1962). The models, which were based on actual homicides, suicides, and accidental deaths, were created to train detectives to assess visual evidence. This seven-year project culminated in an exhibition and a book The Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death (The Monacelli Press, 2004).
The models display an astounding level of precision and detail: shades can be raised and lowered, mice live in the walls, stereoscopes work, whistles blow and pencils write. My photographs highlight the models’ painstaking detail, as well as the prominence of female victims. Through framing, scale, lighting, color, and depth of field, I attempt to bring intimacy and emotion to the scene of the crime. I want viewers to feel as if they inhabit the miniatures - to loose their sense of proportion and experience the large in the small.
In addition to creating over 100 photographs of the models, I spent years researching and writing about the female criminologist who conceived and built the models, Frances Glessner Lee (1878-1962). I considered Lee my collaborator, and as a woman artist, it was important for me to unearth her story and make it known. My writing explores how Lee’s experience of domestic space informed her creations. Lee followed the role prescribed for her as an upper-class woman, but domestic life never suited her. The houses where she lived were a place of refuge, personal expression, and pride, but they were also a source of disempowerment and anxiety. While she was unhappy with the roles she was forced into as a woman, she maintained assumptions about a woman’s place in the home. Interestingly, she advanced in a male dominated field by co-opting the feminine tradition of miniatures
The models undermine the notion of the home as a safe haven and reveal it to be a far more complex sphere. All of the models depict lower middle class interiors, and the majority of victims are women who suffered violent deaths in the home.