Manson Leaping at Judge Charles H. Older on Oct. 5, 1970. India ink and watercolor with scratching out on vellum paper mounted on board. (Bill Robles/Library of Congress)
Art and architecture critic

The Library of Congress exhibition “Drawing Justice: The Art of Courtroom Illustration” is full of the famous, the infamous and at least a few people who were downright evil. It covers the recent history of courtroom illustration, and while it doesn’t aim at the tawdry, it inevitably reminds viewers of some tawdry names they might prefer to forget: James Earl Ray, who killed Martin Luther King Jr., John Gotti, the “dapper don” who was a mafia kingpin in New York, and Charles Manson, whose murderous gang terrorized the nation in 1969.

But the exhibition also focuses on an interesting eddy in the usual historical flow of representation, and it raises questions about what cameras have done to public life and whether they should be present at all in the country’s courtrooms.

In the late 19th century, cameras became cheaper, smaller and more widely available, and they began to invade every precinct of modern life, to the point that they are now essentially ubiquitous. But the courtroom was a rare exception, and the courtroom drawing developed both as a substitute for photography, and as its own, curious alternative form of representation. It was a vestigial remnant of craft, hand and eye in a world that increasingly wanted the streamlined, often austere “objectivity” that the photograph seemed to offer.

Courtroom drawing dates back centuries, to the early days of the popular press and the emergence of crime, scandal, titillation and infamy as staples of daily reading. In the United States, the form burgeoned after the Lindbergh baby kidnapping trial of 1935, during which press coverage was so disruptive that the federal courts and the American Bar Association took steps to remove cameras from judicial proceedings. A brief golden age of courtroom drawing flourished, especially as television, a rapaciously visual medium, became the dominant medium for transmitting the news and producers needed something, anything, to feed the eyes as reporters gave their voice-over.

But the prohibition didn’t last, and by the 1980s many states allowed cameras in again. Today the Supreme Court’s refusal to allow video or still photography is so exceptional that one wonders how long this last vestige of lens-free space will last. Congress has tried, and so far failed, to force the camera into the court, but perhaps one day it will succeed.

Bernard Madoff, going to jail. (Elizabeth Williams/Library of Congress)

The exhibition doesn’t cover the longer arc of courtroom drawing, but focuses on courtroom events since 1964, with an emphasis on legal history rather than the aesthetics or particulars of courtroom drawing as a visual form. That’s unfortunate, because there is great stylistic diversity among the artists represented, from the nervous, sketchy, form-dissolving lines of Howard Brodie’s work, which gives everything a jittery energy, to the emotional extremism of Joseph Papin’s sketches, which channel an expressionist aesthetic from a much earlier age. There are also tropes of visual distortion particular to this form, such as the compression of figures into confined spaces that defy architectural logic, rather like Renaissance artists’ packing dozens of saints and sacred figures into formulaic groupings that focused more on a visual name check of the actors than explaining the drama.

By focusing mainly on the events depicted in the drawings, the exhibition sidesteps what makes courtroom drawing unique as a visual form. But it also undervalues the drawings themselves as vestiges of a non-photographic way of seeing the world. Papin, for example, took advantage of the form to conflate time, drawing multiple different moments of a trial in a single image, as in a trio of views of Jean Harris, the headmistress of a prominent private school who killed her ex-lover in what was known as the Scarsdale Diet Doctor case. Simultaneity occurs more subtly in other images, where each juror wears a particular psychologically distinctive expression, which suggests the artist captured not a single moment in time, but brought together defining moments for each individual.

Other drawings emphasize subjectivity in a way that isn’t always immediately transparent in a photograph. David Rose’s drawings are particularly stylish, and in his image of Daniel Ellsberg leaving the witness stand during his 1973 trial for charges related to leaking the Pentagon Papers, the defendant is seen as stylish, jaunty even, gliding through the courtroom as others in the room seem to incline away from his magnetic presence. It is a highly interpreted image, and unlike a photograph, the overt visual interpretation in Papin’s drawing makes clear to the viewer what photographs attempt to deny: That all images are interpreted, and they always yield more useful data once we acknowledge their inherent subjectivity.

One of the most powerful differences between courtroom drawings and photographs and video of courtroom proceedings is that the former advertise their subjectivity and make it manageable. A drawing by Aggie Kenny, in which the artist puts her own paint box and brushes in the foreground of an image of the jury, hints at this, implicitly suggesting a connection between the artist’s personal view of things and the individual perspectives of each jury member who struggles to come up with an objective view of the facts. Video, however, brings extraordinary powers of mostly hidden interpretation to the proceedings, as the events are cut up and reassembled, ­de-contextualized and reassembled to emphasize narrative drama, and sometimes even more insidious agendas.

In a conversation to celebrate the opening of the exhibition, Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor was asked if she was still open to the idea of cameras in the Supreme Court, an opinion she expressed during her 2009 confirmation. She is less enthusiastic about the idea now, arguing that the camera takes people out of the courtroom and turns them to some degree into personas, or actors. Or, as the late justice Antonin Scalia put it: “We don’t want to become entertainment. I think there’s something sick about making entertainment out of real people’s legal problems.”

There is, of course, a powerful argument for transparency in all public deliberations, especially those that impact as many people as Supreme Court proceedings. In 2011, a film titled “Presumed Guilty” became one of the most popular and influential documentaries in Mexico for showing Mexicans something few had ever seen before: The inner workings of a common criminal trial. Directed by the activist lawyer Roberto Hernández and co-produced with Layda Negrete, “Presumed Guilty” shone light into the dark corners of a corrupt court system, exposing the way in which its architecture, its physical treatment of the accused, the chaos of ordinary proceedings and the manifest hypocrisy of prosecutors, judges and other agents of the state all served to deny due process or even rudimentary fairness to the accused. It wasn’t just a matter of documenting abuses; it used a visual medium to make these abuses manifest, and communicate the emotional terror they exercise on those caught up in the system.

But that’s a far different kind of transparency than whatever extra level of transparency cameras might add to the Supreme Court, which releases audio and printed transcripts of its proceedings, and which produces a vast and thorough paper trail for every decision and dissent it issues. The nation’s highest court stands just across the street from the Library of Congress, and in light of this exhibition (which includes images of the high court) its resistance to the camera seems more radical than retardataire.

Indeed, one of the striking things about the images in this exhibition is how ineffective they are at conveying the kind of ­media-processed drama that has become the norm in television and film coverage of legal proceedings. Boredom is palpable, but also studied engagement. Moments of high drama, such as Charles Manson leaping out of his chair and attempting to get to the judge, are rather clumsy.

Cameras are the ultimate manifestation in social life of what in physics is sometimes called the “observer effect”: There is no such thing as observation that doesn’t impact the things being observed. The transparency value of adding cameras to public life is still palpable and even urgent, as the regular discovery of police abuses (and airline mistreatment of customers) demonstrates. But there are invaluable social dynamics that can only exist outside of the camera’s scope of observation, and this exhibition makes it clear that those dynamics are in desperate need of preservation, just like primal forests, old houses, and silence in libraries.

Drawing Justice: The Art of Courtroom Illustration is on long-term view at the Thomas Jefferson Buildling of the Library of Congress, 10 First St. SE.