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Tucson Weekly Homicidal Homage

"Point of Fracture" gives a powerful public voice to the forgotten criminal element: victims' families.

By Margaret Regan

JUNE 15, 1998:  HALF A DOZEN years ago, the photographer Amy Zuckerman found herself obsessed with the murder of a young Tucson man. He had disappeared, and died, after the most mundane of errands: a quick run to a fast-food joint late at night. Struck by the randomness of his death, Zuckerman followed his case avidly, reading as many newspapers as she could, watching all the TV reports. And after some suspects were charged, she religiously attended their trials.

Day after day, seated in the same room with the man's family, she listened to the testimony about how a beloved son came to meet his death. But his family had no public voice in the matter; indeed they were muzzled by police and lawyers who told them not to jeopardize the case by talking to reporters. Zuckerman became close to the family, and this new relationship eventually inspired a multi-media art project about the aftermath of murder.

Part oral history, part photography, Zuckerman's Point of Fracture: Voices of Heinous Crime Survivors is now on view at the Tucson Museum of Art. The installation is in a basement room painted entirely in black; 12 large black-and-white Zuckerman photos are hung on the walls, lit from behind, like reliquaries in a church. A continuing tape-recorded loop of plaintive voices is piped into the somber room.

Zuckerman shot photos of the families of some 15 different murder victims here in Tucson, while her collaborator, writer Karen Nystedt, interviewed them. (The pair also published a book of the same name, including more photos and a fuller text than the exhibition.) The voices heard in the installation are spliced from Nystedt's interview tapes, and they mostly belong to the families left behind by the dead, though a few are rendered by actors. The families are by turns bitter and sorrowful; no one has ever really put the deaths behind them. There's a disconsolate mother of a murdered daughter who declares, "I know I can kill now." A grown daughter regrets that she still has "50 miserable years" to live without her beloved mother, whose death her husband learned of on the 10 o'clock news. A heartbroken father declares that if everyone could feel, even for minute, the kind of pain that disabled him over the murder of his daughter, everyone would unquestionably try to erase evil from the world.

Finally given a chance to be heard in public, their voices are overwhelming, so much so that you feel compelled to sit down and listen to them first, really listen, before you can bring yourself to study the artwork on the wall. There are few portraits in the pictures; instead Zuckerman has aimed for the telling object, moodily conveyed. One of the most gripping has no people at all: It's a lonely desert road that meanders off into the distance, but the victims the picture commemorates never had a chance to travel its full length. Two white crosses, planted among bouquets of flowers, mark their point of death. In another picture, a pair of boots stands in for a young man who is dead, and in still another, a woman's hands finger the cremated remains of her loved one.

A home shrine connects thematically to the Latino religious works Zuckerman has exhibited in the past. A Chinese-American family constructed the shrine in the wake of a triple murder at their grocery, which left two loved ones and an employee dead. Festooned with flowers, fruit, electric candles and incense, the shrine stands below formal portraits of the dead on a wall.

Then, too, there are Zuckerman's sad images of children who learned about death too young. A teenage girl hugs an old bouquet of flowers from her father's grave. On the wall is a picture of her intact family in happier times, dad, mom and toddler beaming innocently out of the past. In another, a little girl barely past toddlerhood clutches a picture marked "Mommy," at a rally. She's too young yet to know what she's lost, but she will, one day.

Some of the pictures are meaningful only to people who have read the book. For instance, the key to the strange dark picture of a woman gesturing out a window to the bright desert is found in the chapter called "It Was Just Routine." The woman is pointing out her old house, the last place she saw her 14-year-old son before he walked away into death.

This mournful show acknowledges the pain of the forgotten survivors, as Zuckerman hoped it would, and rightly avoids the more usual analysis of the criminals and their motives. The families' wounds are raw and their stories are horrific; their sorrows endow her pictures with a power they might not otherwise have. The show is instructive for those of us who have never yet gotten that dreaded phone call in the night, that slow walk of a policeman up to the front door. But the wrenching emotions that the families disclose are hardly surprising. They're about what you'd expect of people who experience a sister's whole self truncated into a pair of arms tossed in a trash bin, a mother bloodied, a son reduced to bones in the desert.

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