Haunting Dioramas Re-Create Tiny, Bloody Crime Scenes

Photographer Bill Finger shows us violent crime scenes and eerie suburban dramas unfolding within miniature film sets. Then, he destroys the evidence.

Even though grisly crimes dismay many of us in real life, TV dramas depicting them–aka police procedurals–are one of the most-watched genres of television. The same goes for movies–a brutal Tarantino film delights, while a real-life crime of the same ilk horrifies.


“With movies there is a willing suspension of disbelief,” says Bill Finger, a former Hollywood cameraman whose work includes A River Runs Through It, Bones, Dawson’s Creek, and more recently, a portfolio of fascinating fine art photography.“With the photograph there has always been an expectation of honesty.”

Finger’s photographs challenge both. He creates tiny dioramas, much like film sets, and photographs them as he would a film. Then, he destroys the models, completing the cycle of building and “striking” the set. He developed a fascination with set design while working with filmmakers like Sven Nykvist and recently, Doug Aitken. “I have always had a fascination with movie set as these temporary spaces that are created solely to be photographed,” he tells Co.Design. “So, here is this space, that didn’t exist before, that we as a film crew might spend weeks living in, that is then destroyed once we were done.”

In his Seattle studio, Finger recreates the process in miniature, capturing photos that look like film stills. “By borrowing methodology from filmmaking, my images become an amalgamation of both truth and fiction,” he explains. “They are an entwining of places that I have been, with movies sets that I have worked on during my career as an assistant cameraman.”

In his most recent series–which was on view last month at Punch Gallery in Finger’s home city of Seattle–he creates a portrait of an aspiring astronaut, stuck inside a suburban tract home. The would-be space explorer has stacked the dining room chairs to recreate the angle of the space ship’s seats during launch, while in another scene, we see an intricate model of the moon’s surface set up on an oak side table. But some of the images confuse the story line: an actual astronaut climbs up out of an attic trap door. It’s unclear whether we’re seeing a dream or a reality. The photos are silent and somehow, very lonely.

In Previously (as in, “previously on As The World Turns“), Finger plumbs a much darker world: crime scenes. This series finds him investigating the world of procedural dramas like Law & Order. Some of the photos show us crime scenes just after the fact–a blood-stained mattress in a marshy field–while others show an interrogation table scattered with notes. “I emphasize a certain degree of theatricality in my images,” he explains. “By opening the image to questioning by the viewer, they’re left to wonder ‘how much truth does this photograph hold?’” There’s something deeply sad about the empty photos of hospital beds and stretchers in the series.

Finger’s photos are almost completely devoid of actors. But we get the sense that the characters are lingering just outside of the camera frame–a lit cigarette, or a paperback tossed on an armchair, give the photos an air of expectation. We’re seeing the calm before the storm.


About the author

Kelsey Campbell-Dollaghan is Co.Design's deputy editor.