The World of Crime Through Two Photographers’ Eyes
Two photographers, two visions; born 30 years apart, one in 1899, and one in 1929, with only one naked city—New York—between them. Gritty, grotesque, compassionate, corrupt; the images currently on display at two exceptional New York City photo exhibits are all that and more. Two shutterbugs, looking and clicking, engrossed in both their art form and life’s morose situations, from which, they didn’t look away.
Arthur Fellig, aka “Weegee” was, in his own words, “spellbound by the mystery of murder.” The atmosphere in his tabloid photographs is dank and dark, suggestive of the world of film noir: tawdry, unapologetic, flash-lit images that sear the brain.
Leonard Freed documented history in the making—the Civil Rights movement, the Yom Kippur War, and from 1972 to 1979, the New York City Police Department. In Police Work — his photo documentary account of that experience — he states, “When asked why I became so interested in the police, I have to answer, everyone should be.”
Arthur Fellig (“Weegee”), the Voyeur
In 1993, the International Center of Photography (ICP) was bequeathed 16,000 photographs and 7,000 negatives by Weegee’s longtime companion, Wilma Wilcox. With two prior exhibitions, and now with Weegee: Murder Is My Business, on exhibit through September 2nd, they have brought the frenetic underworld of this shameless, but brilliant, voyeur to full-blown life.
Curator Brian Wallis has made the first decade of Weegees’s full-time work as a photographer the focus. Young, impatient, hungry, our hustler with a camera went to work. If the old adage, “water finds its own level,” has any validity, it is in Weegee’s journeys into the streets. He not only shot the subjects of violence and freakish accidents, he shot the ones who watched. “The First Murder” captures school children—off-balance in their gawky attempts to see the body of a petty hoodlum, Pete Mancuso—and, just off center, the dead man’s aunt, in her personal anguish.
What makes this picture so harrowing?
As a high contrast, black and white image, its composition is first-rate. The onlookers seem distorted, bigger-than-life in the foreground, shoving their faces into the camera’s flash. Those that hover in the background, are just as important, for the eye is pulled into the frame and can’t let go. Finally, these are young voyeurs. What Weegee has captured is the death of their innocence.
Criminals, killed by one another or the police, are here for the taking. Roundups of surly thugs and collapsing wives are commonplace. “Line-up for Night Court” fills the foreground with an NYPD officer and a shutter-happy competitor of Weegee’s with flash raised at the subject, handcuffed and held in place as if for the firing squad. Witnesses gape from the back windows of the building. It’s a carnival for the camera.
In “The Deadman’s Wife Arrived,” the same high contrast style prevails. The patrol car, the uniform, and the background is all black, but the fatherly cop’s face, his sure hand grasping the woman in her fall, and her partially-concealed face and dress—become a screaming streak of white in the night. And where was Weegee in all of this? The boisterous photojournalist was only ten feet away from the scene, if that.
For the voyeur, catastrophes go hand in hand with crime, so there is a generous sprinkling of fires and car accidents. The show takes its title from an exhibit of his works that Weegee staged at the popular Photo League’s headquarters on East 21st Street in 1941. In the museum’s recreation, one of the images shows the photographer himself using red nail polish to touch up and dramatize, some of the bloodier snapshots on view.
Another tableau features his room, in the shoddy, unkempt style one might expect of a single man obsessed with his nightly street beat. A battered desk with its array of newspapers and sensationalist tabloids of the day greets the eye, replete with a Corona manual typewriter, an alarm clock, a 4/5 Speed Graphic box camera with flash, and most telling—over the iron headstand of his single bed—his clippings, browning with age, tacked helter-skelter to the back wall.
A press card on display from 1941, issued by then police Commissioner Lewis Valentine, states that the bearer is entitled to “pass police and fire lines wherever found,” but also indicates this liberty is “subject to conditions on the back.”
Touch screens throughout the exhibit allow the viewer to compare copies of the photographer’s printed works, read excerpts from PM, a short-lived tabloid, and even listen in on an encounter in his later days with actor Peter Sellars, who supposedly used Weegee’s own New Yorker accent for his Dr. Strangelove character. The success of his “Naked City” images, the first of five books, was his inspiration to exchange the street beat for Hollywood.
Born in Zoczew, Poland, on June 12, 1899, at ten years of age, Usher Fellig became Arthur when he passed through Ellis Island. He dropped out of school at an early age to help support the family as a darkroom assistant. It may have been during his long hours, squeegee in hand, that he adopted the moniker “Weegee.” More likely, his ability to appear at the crime scene before the police, led to the creation of the phonetic spelling of Ouija, the board game of prophecy. The name stuck.
If timing is everything, he not only showed up with an uncanny prescience, but his garish depictions were published at a time when the public was famished for a close-up look into an underworld they perceived as more interesting than their own. He developed his pictures in a self-made “darkroom” in the back of his car and carried a rubber stamp marked “Credit Photo by Weegee the Famous.”
Weegee the man was a creation of his own making.
As evidenced in ICP’s exhibit, he was a shameless self-promoter, allowing himself to be “arrested,” handcuffed and brought before the judge in all his sad-eyed, pudding-faced glory. As a witness to humanity’s most horrendous moments, he was “in your face.” The results speak for themselves.
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