Across society there is an undeniable intrigue regarding serial killers, extending to a minute cluster of people collecting memorabilia related to them, this called Murderabilia. While exploring the concept of the photograph as a document, ‘RedMail’ investigates perceptions where the veracity of the presented information is integral to attitudes towards the items, resulting in an element of trust between the author and the viewer. With both original and appropriated imagery, this collection intends to fascinate and satisfy the desire for authenticity alongside using a language that evokes the sublime from an incongruous amalgamation of everyday objects.
Society’s primitive fascination with serial killers has been extensively documented, examined, and conversed about; a seemingly incessant and somewhat peculiar obsession that has become pervasive in popular culture. Serial killers and the events they orchestrate are both a dark reality and a social construct, immortalised through an engagement from the masses they represent, a distinct ‘them’ situated firmly outside the sphere of normality. Despite the innate tendency to create ‘them’ and ‘us’ throughout human history, it is unusual that this imagined positioning would foster such a deep rooted attraction. Mass murderers are compelling, complex anomalies on an otherwise familiar social landscape which are then largely shaped and accentuated through the mass media. Graphic content, alluring documentaries and fictitious like depictions have moulded them into grand spectacles and created a straddling of both fact and fiction. Such killers are now characters in an adult rated film and one which we are happy to watch over and over again regardless of the disturbing and traumatic consequences.
This obsession with serial killers operates on two distinct levels; within society as an aggregate of individuals as well as the individuals themselves on a much more personal level. Whilst mainstream culture’s intrigue is prevalent to the point of adopting an almost theatrical persona, it is perhaps more appropriate to this context to further the dialogue surrounding the individual compulsion towards serial killers. The incomprehensibility of serial killers’ actions, despite their often relatable day to day lives and unassuming personalities, seem to be the firm building blocks to our particular curiosities; an inability to understand translates to curiosity which is then translated into fascination and obsession. This in turn can then be rendered through the act of collecting into a physical medium. An entire market, aptly named ‘Murderabilia’, has been birthed; notable collectors, dedicated sellers, authentication sites and murder auctions with the clothing of serial killers being in particular demand all play their part and are a direct product of this magnetism. Perhaps it is a lack of humanity in such an absolute manner possessed by such people that we attempt to fathom their thought processes through the objects and photographs associated with them. Thus we simultaneously demonise and lionise serial killers; continuously oscillating between these two actions yet never wavering in our fascination.
‘RedMail’ by Nathaniel Bell appears at first as an eclectic mix of arbitrary objects; postage stamps, various pairs of shoes and handwritten cards. These seem comfortably relatable to ourselves; we all send post, have numerous pairs of shoes and write Christmas cards. Yet promptly further material in the publication bluntly punctuates and jarringly oﬀsets this rhythm to suggest a far more unsettling subtext that runs throughout the book. ‘RedMail’ invites us as readers to involve ourselves in the physical manifestations of past serial killers through associated and collectable objects, allowing us to continue our eager conversation surrounding the interest in such people and the culture that has been fostered by them. Bell has coalesced archival material with new photographic works to construct an abundance of documents that act as evidence and testament to mass killers; knives, oil cans, arrows and finger prints amongst other murderabilia intriguingly construct a Venn diagram of items which are equally as relatable as they are not. It is this tangible cross section of material that is so central to the operation of the book and the work on a broader plane of dialogue. We are simultaneously so familiar with the totality of material in the book, yet in this given context internally struggle to assimilate such harrowing events with them. This inward facing confrontation quickly gives way to the aforementioned curiosity which ‘RedMail’ astutely acknowledges only to tempt us further.
The photographs themselves are eschewed of their contextual information until the end of the book and the insert included with the publication; in this way Bell gives us an ambiguous space for our own thoughts, ideas and preconceptions towards the objects to be projected into the book without knowing whether the objects are authentic, or simply normal objects that we fabricate into this narrative. Photographs are innately polysemic and it is a compelling position to be placed in as a reader; conjuring and playing with these constantly fluctuating thoughts each reader becomes heavily and personally involved with the narrative as we continuously produce a myriad of questions and potential answers for ourselves.
Bell has succinctly brought structure and rhythm to an almost overwhelming amount of material (harking back to seminal works such as ‘Evidence’ by Mike Mandel and Larry Sultan) where the book eﬀectively re-contextualises found objects on mass to an entirely disparate and new purpose from their original function. Free flowing subjectivity plays tightly alongside objectivity in RedMail; rigorously formal compositions oﬀer us little insight into Bell’s own thoughts where he flatly presents us with an amalgamation of this evidence associated with various serial killers and their actions. Yet concurrently the subjective choice of which events and murderers Bell explores and the consequent placement of them within the physical book does. It is thus interesting to consider that whilst RedMail engages in conversations about other people’s obsession as a whole with these killers, it also represents Bell’s personal fascination and the book becomes an archive of his own interest. The book subtly probes at multiple threads of a much larger conversation yet it does so in a way that positions each reader centrally within the book on a local scale.
‘RedMail’ is importantly not simply a documentation of these objects or this social phenomenon. It catalogues, organises and uses documents to then critically very much play into our personal and sometimes darker fascinations. To position this book as merely an archive of such objects would be to drastically overlook the operation of the work on a cultivated, thoughtful and emotional level.
Kris Kozlowski Moore