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Fashion victims

Old-style crime scenes mix with haute couture in Melanie Pullen's photographs.

June 17, 2004|Jessica Hundley | Special to The Times

Fashion shoots might not seem to go hand in hand with crime scene images. But for Los Angeles-based photographer Melanie Pullen, they're a perfect fit.

Her newly opened show "High Fashion Crime Scenes" in Silver Lake is a collection of more than 40 large-format photos that take their cues from police and newspaper photographs of the 1940s and '50s.

Pullen, who was trained in magazine photography, adds her own twist by presenting her "victims" in the latest haute couture, in setups that can require a small army of stylists and even a stunt crew.

In one work, two shapely legs, wearing sheer stockings and what appears to be a pair of Jimmy Choos, dangle from a body that seems to swing from an out-of-frame noose. In another, a girl floats lifelessly in an aqua pool, dressed to the nines in a blue sequined ball gown.

At up to 7 feet across, Pullen's murky, color-saturated images are meant to be intimidating, disturbing, hyper-real -- and somehow whimsical.

"I was looking at how society's changed," Pullen says, "how we've become apathetic to these images, and I wanted to do my own commentary on that. I took this horrific subject and turned it into something aesthetic. My goal is that the last thing you'll notice is the crime."

Pullen's interest began two years ago when she was looking at Luc Sante's book "Evidence" at Book Soup in West Hollywood.

"It was all crime photos taken from the 1910s into the 1940s," she says. "I was fascinated with the details of the pictures, so fascinated I totally overlooked the crime scenes altogether."

Pullen was also struck by the work of mid-20th century newspaper photographer Weegee, who was adept at capturing the dark corners of urban life. His crime scene photos owe their allure not to the depiction of the crime itself, but rather to the minutiae within the frame, the fragments of the familiar sitting passively next to the catastrophic.

"What really interested me were the details inside the pictures," Pullen says. "The life of the people involved, the perfume bottle on the dresser, the knocked-over lamp. For me, that was the mystery behind those photographs. Those people's stories."

The 28-year-old artist first put her fashion-crime photos on display last year at the Silver Lake Society for Authentic Arts. After receiving a positive response from gallery-goers, she expanded the series to nearly 80 photos altogether.

Pullen's current show began Saturday at the same cavernous loft space in Silver Lake. It was featured as the kickoff event for the 10th annual ArtWalk presented by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art's Muse program, a membership group targeting young collectors. Pullen's work has also generated buzz in recent issues of Elle and Nylon magazines.

But she's far from a solo act.

"I'm so addicted to elaborate detail and building sets and finding locations, it's become a whole process," she says, adding that many of the "High Fashion Crime Scenes" shoots required extensive design and styling and at times even the help of a special effects crew and stunt coordinators.

"I'd say about 60 people or so, total, have been involved," Pullen says. "There are sets and locations, and I'm re-creating all these elements from real crime photos.

"I try not to do it exactly. I add in my own vision, but it's still intricate. I've had the stunt team who worked on 'Kill Bill,' a prosthetics and special effects crew. There's a pretty wild amount of people involved in making this happen."

As complicated as this sounds, though, Pullen does have one more simple, if unlikely, source of inspiration from her youth: her grandmother, who works as a photo editor at Audubon magazine.

"I remember she judged a nature contest once and the photo she picked was of a field of snow with no animal in it," Pullen says. "But if you looked closely, you could see little footprints in the snow and then, where the footprints ended there were the marks of an owl's wing."

"To her," Pullen adds, "that said so much more than a just a picture of an owl would have. That's what I'm trying to do with my photos as well, to tell a story within the frame."


`High Fashion Crime Scenes'

Who: Melanie Pullen

Where: Silver Lake Society for Authentic Arts, 1085 Manzanita St., Silver Lake

Ends: July 12

Contact: (323) 662-6771;

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