The photograph shows three men in suits and a fourth in a long coat, standing by a car at the side of a dirt road on a flat plain panelled with fields. Power lines stretch to the grey horizon. The men could be property developers, surveying the site of a new out-of-town supermarket, but for a single detail: one of them has curled his hand into the shape of a pistol, and he is pointing it at his companions.
The picture, taken in 1963, comes from the archive of the Los Angeles Police Department. The three men in suits are cops, there to recreate the climax of the Onion Field kidnappings, one of the more notorious cases in the history of the LAPD – a police force that, in its 145-year history, has seen more notorious cases than any other. The fourth man (on the far right) is Jimmy Lee Smith, one of the suspects.
On the night of 9 March, two LAPD officers had been kidnapped in Hollywood and driven north into California's agricultural heartland. One, Ian Campbell, was shot dead in an onion field; the other, Karl Hettinger, ran off into the dark and escaped. The killers, Gregory Powell and Smith, known as "Jimmy Youngblood", were captured the next day. They received death sentences, but evaded execution when California abolished the death penalty several years later.
The photograph has been unearthed for "Unedited!: the LAPD Photo Archives", an exhibition showing at this month's second annual Paris Photo fair in Los Angeles. The fair takes place on the soundstages of Paramount Studios in Hollywood, where some of the shots are being displayed in the shop façades of the studio's New York backlot – a fake Manhattan street – meaning they are "in" LA and New York simultaneously.