DAVID GONZALE: Weegee’s Killer Decade | Theorize Art
January 20, 2012, 8:30 PM
Weegee’s Killer Decade
By DAVID GONZALE Steps away from the sanitized, commercialized and pacified Times Square is a portal to a sinister urban past, where two-bit hoods lay sprawled in pools of blood with stogies clenched in their lifeless jaws, watched over by the police and the curious alike. It’s a world of men with guns and hats who played their final hands under elevated tracks and tenements that have long since vanished.
Weegee/International Center of Photography
A sprawling show devoted to an intense decade in the city’s history opens Friday at the International Center of Photography. “Weegee: Murder Is My Business” delivers on its promise, and then some, showcasing the work of the legendary photographerArthur Fellig from 1935 to 1946. He had a knack for being in the right place at the right time. More importantly, he had a unique visual style – like in his photo of a Little Italy homicide titled “Balcony Seats at a Murder.” Transcending the just-the-facts approach of routine police crime scene photography, he captured the details and drama, the humor and the horror, along the city’s streets.
Though some images turn on sight gags and ironic puns, there are many more that show an unmatched and unsentimental feel for the streets and its denizens. While Weegee could be equal parts huckster and hustler, he was also dedicated to his work, said Brian Wallis, the show’s curator.
“One of the things we wanted to correct with this show was that view of him as a naïf or a buffoon, who just happened to take pictures,” he said. “He was a serious and well-respected photographer who worked in a tradition that was denigrated as tabloid photography. He didn’t know the world of museums and galleries, but he did know one thing very well: the streets of New York. He took that seriously.”
Weegee/International Center of PhotographyWeegee covering the morning lineup at the police headquarters in New York. Circa 1939.
Strains of jazz and police sirens waft through the center’s galleries, where visitors descend a staircase, under a replica of the big gun sign that marked where Weegee once lived — across Center Street from the old police headquarters. It leads to a re-creation – tidied and spartan – of his old room, down to the scanner, tear sheets and can of bed bug killer. You can almost smell the cigar smoke – though in the city today, that now passes for a crime in most places.
The re-creation of his room is fitting for a man who sort of created himself. Mr. Wallis explained how Weegee had seen himself as a photo detective, inhabiting the world of cops and journalists. The show starts with images of Weegee at crime scenes – including a mid-1930s spread from Life Magazine where he documented a criminal’s journey from arrest to jailing.
He was the model.
“He set up the shots with his buddies from the police department,” Mr. Wallis said. “The editors at Life said ‘This is fantastic, but it’s not what we hired you to do. The story is you.’ So they ran a story on him. From then on, he was off to the races.”
Weegee/International Center of PhotographyOn the lineup platform at the police headquarters. Circa 1936.
Mr. Wallis said Weegee stood out among other photographers in a city saturated with newspaper shooters by working freelance and at night. The former gave him flexibility. That latter gave him opportunity.
“What happened at night?” Mr. Wallis said. “People get shot. People get drunk. People get in car wrecks. He established a niche and specialty.”
The arrival of the groundbreaking newspaper, PM, gave him a venue for regular and more ambitious work. With Ralph Steiner as the photo editor, Weegee’s work took a dimension of storytelling that had been absent from his earlier output.
“Most murders he took one shot, three at most,” Mr. Wallis said. “At PM, he did some of his best work. They gave him free rein, he had input on how the pictures were laid out, how the captions read and the story, too. And since it was a daily, he was cranking it out.”
Such experiences would hint at his other work, that showed the city beyond the blood: where European immigrants and migrants from down South settled into teeming blocks, where the Depression was beginning to lift, gangsters were fighting for turf and the world was at war. A broader view is hinted at in a part of the exhibit that details his 1941 show at the Photo League.
The world of earnest, political photographers exemplified by the Photo League might seem an odd fit for Weegee, though not in Mr. Wallis’ consideration.
“How could he fit in with what they were trying to do?” Mr. Wallis said. “The Photo League had a street-level view of working-class New York. They documented the people, though they tended to be romantic. Weegee had an unvarnished take.”
Among the final images in the show are various tear sheets from PM. They are yellowed and look brittle. Above them is an array of images, some light, others serious. They show the city – bustling, noisy, crazy – from wayward cars, revelers at a bar and summer crowds at Coney Island. A headline to one spread offers a fitting coda:
These Are Real People Showing Emotion.
Weegee/International Center of Photography“Balcony seats at a murder.” Nov. 16, 1939.