January 25, 2012

Weegee CSI

Leave it to Weegee (1899—1968), our flashbulb-flashing late night freelance crime photographer of New York's most noir era, to make a picture of Macy's balloon of Santa Claus look like a crime victim. But there he's done it. On November 21, 1941, in the wee hours of pre-parade inflation, Weegee climbed to a high vantage point on a nearby building and snapped the happy floating symbol of the holidays stretched out flat, bloated, and face up, open eyes looking dead as it hovers over a New York street. The image is only one of at least a hundred unexpected photographs by the inventive photographer, and several with real dead bodies, displayed in a stunning new exhibit titled Weegee: Murder Is My Business at the International Center of Photography.

Weegee, Line-Up for Night Court, ca. 1941. © Weegee/International Center of Photography.
Medium: Gelatin silver print

Weegee's brand of tabloid journalism during the years 1935 and 1946, the focus of the exhibit, casts him in a singular role as the city's biggest photo hustler on the shady late night streets. Living on the Lower East Side in a small flat on the one-block long Centre Market Place directly across from Police Headquarters, Weegee was privy to the first reports of a fresh crime scene, allowing him to quickly grab his 4 x 5 Speed Graphic press camera and be among the first to arrive. The resulting photographs often dramatized a sequence of street tableaus in black and white - a victim bleeding on the street corner, the nonchalant witnesses, the shocked face of a relative arriving by motor car. After taking the pictures, Weegee went back to Police Headquarters and read the early file reports, just so he could properly write his captions.

Beyond the crime scenes, Weegee (b. Arthur Fellig) took his camera to movie theaters, parades, the theater district, tenement houses, and beaches. When he was not snapping photos of victims and perps, he was training his eye on the everyday spectacle of the city. The "Naked City," the title of his first collection of photographs from 1945, pulls back the illusion of New York movie fantasy to reveal and illuminate vulnerable moments in the life of a sleep-deprived city. Weegee stays up through the morning to witness the absurd spectacles. Naked City opens with Weegee's prose description of a Sunday morning in the city, a peaceful time with "no traffic…and no crime either," followed by his photographs of early morning scenes. These include children sleeping on the fire escapes of tenement houses, sailors passed out in an open air canteen, and homeless curled up on the streets. Not strictly tabloid news images, these images also point to the social uses of photography, the kind practiced by New York's Photo League.

Weegee, [Installation view of "Weegee: Murder Is My Business" at the Photo League, New
York], 1941. © Weegee/International Center of Photography.
Medium: Gelatin silver print


The title of the exhibit at ICP takes its title from the exhibit Weegee self-curated at the Photo League in 1941, and a partial reconstruction of the original show is here among the many artifacts that contextualize Weegee's photography. ICP Chief Curator Brian Wallis has chosen to highlight a particularly fascinating time in the history of photography, an era when working stiff newspaper photographers began to feel threatened by photojournalists. In the late 1930s and early 1940s, photographers like Robert Capa, Margaret Bourke-White, Alfred Eisenstaedt, and Henri Cartier-Bresson ushered in a new photo age with the publishing of fabulous magazines. The Photo League included many well-known members of the so-called "golden age" of photojournalism. Weegee not only earned a relationship to all the working types of his photo peers, but he may have been one of the most influential. His stark images of New Yorkers prefigure the work of Lisette Model and Diane Arbus.

While he straddled the line between news photography and a socially aware form of photojournalism, Weegee did not seem to suffer an artistic identity crisis. He was fully in charge of his own PR and successful in creating his own mystique. The publication of Naked City made him famous. To further understand the mind and method of a photographer on the verge, visitors to the ICP will see a recreation of Weegee's humble bedroom. There - the bedside police radio scanner, the newspaper clippings on the wall, the Life magazine on the bed, the flash camera on the floor, and the typewriter on the desk - the evidence adds up. Weegee was just not a witness to New York in these years of transition. He took the first shot.

Images above courtesy International Center of Photography.

More information:
Weegee: Murder Is My Business
International Center of Photography
through September 2, 2012
1133 Avenue of the Americas at 43rd Street


Hours of ICP:
Tuesday–Wednesday: 10:00 am–6:00 pm

Thursday–Friday: 10:00 am–8:00 pm

Saturday–Sunday: 10:00 am–6:00 pm
Closed: Mondays

Read the companion post: A Walk to Weegee's Street: Centre Market Place.

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