George Silk's Law of The Gun photograph, 1957, as it appears in The Photography Book

Photos that changed the world #9 Law of the Gun

George Silk’s gangland slaying shot marked the beginnings of photography’s relationship with TV

In 1957 the Gallup polling company asked Americans ‘If you had to give up one of these -- radio, television, the newspaper, or magazines - which one would be the hardest for you?' 

The results were as follows: magazines, 4%; radio, 21%; newspapers, 27%; television, 45%. Proof, if any were needed, that America was now a nation of viewers. How could photography could keep up with the rise of the moving image? Partly by working around the televisual news agenda.

George Silk was a New-Zealand born photographer who shot for Life magazine for 30 years. Silk covered World War II, and became a US citizen in 1947, covering a different kind of bloodshed closer to his adopted home. The above image, entitled The Law of The Gun, shows the body of recently slain New York gangster, Albert Anastasia surrounded by the five police detectives tasked with solving the crime.

Anastasia, who was shot to death on October 25, 1957 while visiting the barber’s shop at the Park Sheraton hotel, was already a familiar figure to US TV audiences. The mobster had appeared as a witness at Senator Estes Kefauver’s Senate Crime Investigating Committee, which held televised hearings in New York a few years earlier, drawing millions of viewers. 

Life Magazine knew it had to respond to TV's capacity to amplify a news story, a fact Silk acknowledges in his shot. The photograph is a grisly one, yet it doesn’t focus on the body, but rather the investigative operation going smoothly into action around it. Like a still from a real-life police drama, the photograph looks behind the immediate news event, and into the TV-watching public’s newfound enthusiasm for organised crime investigations (not to mention mob intrigue).

“Television, which was then getting into its stride, had introduced a whole range of underworld figures, along with their accusers to public attention as never before,” writes our author Ian Jeffrey in the our newly revised title The Photography Book. “Around 20 million people had seen and heard the Kefauver proceedings, and thus when Anastasia was assassinated in 1957, the event was important as a sequel. It marked the beginnings of still photography’s relationship with television.”

George Silk's Law of the Gun is just one of over 500 images featured in our newly published The Photography Book. You can read previous entries in our Photos That Changed The World series on WeegeeAnsel AdamsRichard Avedon and Eadweard Muybridge; and if you like what you've read, you'll find a whole lot more in The Photography Book here. Finally, here's an interview with its author, Ian Jeffrey.