Weegee strikes again
Body of Dominick Didato, Elizabeth Street, New York, August 7, 1936.
In the fall of 1978, the International Center of Photography mounted the first retrospective of Weegee photographs. Reviews of the show were positive, though the reviews often centered on debates about the artfulness of Weegee’s tabloid images. The New York Times critic began with the very conundrum of this tension between art and news photography: “It is always faintly alarming to see the photographs of Weegee on exhibition at a museum or gallery. They were not made for exhibition but to be reproduced in tabloid newspapers.” Despite this beginning, the review affirms Weegee’s importance in American photography, and argues that his work influenced later artists such as Diane Arbus and Garry Winograd.
Just a few months before this retrospective opened, John Berger published his essay “The Uses of Photography.” In the essay, he makes a crucial distinction between private and public photography:
In the private use of photography, the context of the instant recorded is preserved so that the photograph lives in an ongoing continuity. (If you have a photograph of Peter on your wall, you are not likely to forget what Peter means to you.) The public photograph, by contrast, is torn from its context, and becomes a dead object which, exactly because it is dead, lends itself to any arbitrary use.
For Berger, public photographs — these dead objects — float in a stream of images such that the subject of any particular photographed moment or event turns into a generalized reality absent of context. Like much of his writing in this period, Berger’s concerns were directed to the political force and ethical values of photojournalism.
This moment in the late 1970s also saw the publication of Susan Sontag’s collection of essays On Photography. In it, Sontag presents her focused critique that photographs have created a “chronic voyeuristic relationship” to the world around us. There was no better example of this critique than Weegee’s tabloid images of urban street life and crime scenes, all of which appeal to our voyeuristic tendencies. His revival emerged within these new, critical views of our image culture, and discussions of his work have often been enmeshed in these debates. Though his photographs haven’t changed since the 1970s, our relationship to them has.
Weegee: Murder Is My Business engages a different approach to the photographer’s archive. Eschewing concerns about art, the show focuses instead on the self-invention of Weegee amidst the rise of tabloid newspapers in the 1930s and ’40s. In a show whose title contains “murder,” it is not hard to think of his images as dead objects. But in the context of Berger’s ideas, I began to rethink exactly what the word “murder” refers to.
The title echoes Weegee’s eponymous, first gallery show in 1941 at the Photo League, which presented his tabloid photographs of crimes and gang violence. It is tempting to contemplate the many analogies between camera shots and gun shots — a revolver looms overhead in the entrance hall, aimed at a wall-sized photo of Weegee, camera in hand. What is so unsettling — and constantly compelling — about Weegee’s work has little to do with the actual murders he framed, or even how they provoke our chronic voyeurism. In wandering this show, with its focus on Weegee’s self-promoting vitality and the many displays of actual tabloids that published his work and created the aura of Weegee, I began to understand why his work has remained so engaging and debated. His images destroy so many of our sentimental ideas about photography itself.
The show presents a finely curated collection of photographs of the chaos of urban life, from fires to accidents to corpses and, throughout, the crowds of onlookers who revel in the scenes of destruction. Weegee, who made a career photographing the gangland crimes and gruesome tragedies of New Yorkers for the tabloid press in the 1930s and ’40s, had a certain irony about his work, and, as this show makes clear, a way of exploiting our fascination for murder.
Police officer and lodge member looking at blanket-covered body of woman trampled to death in excursion-ship stampede, New York, August 18, 1941
The first gallery recreates the small studio and apartment that Weegee rented at 5 Center Market Place, just across from police headquarters. The disheveled space looks more like an abandoned subway station than a photographer’s studio. The bed is here. The small side table. Shoes at the ready. And above the bed a recreated collage of news clippings and tear sheets of the photographer’s work, yellowed and fragile as so much of the room appears. Near the recreated room hang photographs taken of the actual room, Weegee lying on the bed, cigar in hand, next to a radio and alarm clock. While patrons were clearly intrigued by the studio recreation, it mirrored a kind of mimetic diorama that one might encounter in a Disney-inspired exhibition. While the curators refrained from a wax figure of the photographer, I did wonder if they had fallen too deeply for Weegee’s self-promotion antics.
These photographs were part of Weegee’s consistent self-promotion. He was not the kind of photographer to stay behind the camera. The first gallery, “Photo Detective: Weegee and the Art of Self-Invention,” presents a number of his self-portraits in the studio and at crime scenes, holding his iconic Speed Graphic camera with the large, bulbous flash. These were the cameras that would shoot a blinding light at the subject, the flash hot and intense. The effect was to create brightly lit subjects against a nearly black background, a film noir aura similar to a deer caught in the headlights.
Unidentified photographer, “On the Spot” (1938)
In one self-portrait, Weegee lies on the floor of the paddy wagon, his camera pointing at us as we look inside the car. Clearly taken by someone else (a police officer, perhaps), the image looks more Hollywood publicity photo than crime shot, with Weegee playing the role of both voyeur and criminal.
One intriguing set of photographs show him posing as a criminal in each stage of an arrest. He was hired by the newly launched Life magazine to picture for them the actual police procedure. As his reputation and success grew in the 1930s, he began to stamp his photographs on the back with a circular seal that read “Credit Photo by Weegee The Famous.”
Born Usher Ferllig to a Jewish family in a small village in what was then Austria (and is now part of Ukraine) in 1899, he and the family immigrated to New York 10 years later, settling in the overcrowded immigrant tenements of the Lower East Side. The working-class streets and neighborhoods would eventually be the world he captured for the tabloid press, turning an eye away from the often photographed grander of the city’s rising skyline. His photographs lack the quite certitude of Paul Strand or the lyrical frames of Edward Weston. Weegee’s New York is one of chaos and confusion, of narrow streets and tenement buildings, of people caught in mid-action, recovering from an accident, fainting at the news of a love one killed. These are spectacles of theater, where one murder scene looks similar to another, where the crowd in Hell’s Kitchen nearly mirrors the spectators in Brooklyn.
As his ambitions to be a freelance photographer grew, he took on the moniker Weegee, suggesting both his work in a dark room as the squeegee boy, but, more likely, connoting the a mystical aura of the Ouija board that was gaining popularity in the 1920s for its supposed power of foresight. He was often at a crime scene before the police, a reality made possible by his special police radio. He once claimed that Time magazine paid him by the bullet. His famous 1945 photography book Naked City, which turned him from New York tabloid photographer to a noir poet of the urban chaos, contains a photograph of a receipt from the venerable magazine listing “Two Murders” and the payment of $35.00.
But the bodies of gangland killings are really not what engages us most about Weegee’s “murder” photography. Rather, it’s those photographs of spectators, of those left behind, of family members and neighborhood kids and girlfriends, whose reactions are caught in flat white light in a moment of curiosity or pain. Weegee’s photographs lack a story. They give us a moment, a flash of light with a headline. “At an East Side Murder” captures a standing crowd along the sidewalk opposite from Weegee’s camera.
“At the East Side Murder” (1943)
You notice the few faces staring back at you much more than you notice those straining necks and varied emotions of the onlookers getting a glimpse of the body, which must be quite near Weegee. In these images, with their ambiguous captions, the murder scene becomes a stage upon which Weegee captures the reactions of the audience. He was in love with spectators. Naked City is filled with close-up shots of onlookers in Harlem jazz clubs, in Greenwich Village bars, or in a famous series of photographs of a young girl’s reactions at a Frank Sinatra concert. These spectators illustrate a generalized public. Weegee suggested that the image and the street life blurred into one, writing in the introduction to Naked City, “[A] photograph is a page from life, and that being the case, it must be real.” Like walking through the city, his photos can easily slip between places and even years, for they represent an idea of the city instead of documenting a condition of its being. We can take pleasure in looking, in looking at those others looking. We can be captivated by the “life” that he presents us in all its arresting uncertainty.
Weegee knew that everything becomes theater in the tabloid press. He captioned his images to fit the dramas. “Balcony Seats at a Murder” presents a long shot of two buildings with their residents huddled on the fire escapes and open windows looking down as long-coated police detectives stand around the entrance to the “Italian Café” in Little Italy. The entrance is blocked by the body of man, his legs stretched onto the sidewalk, half hidden from view.
“Girl jumped out of car, and was killed, on Park Ave” (1938)
Consider the most famous of these spectator images, “Their First Murder.” Captured in 1941, the photograph presents a closely framed group of school children pushing and pulling against each other, looking off to the body of Peter Mancuso, gunned down on the sidewalk as he was walking with a newspaper. But we don’t see Peter. We only see the reactions. The faces range from the anguish of the victim’s aunt in the center, to utter glee on the face of a blond boy on the left, to confused concern by two boys in the back. But it’s the girl in the foreground, staring up with knitted brows and projecting a look of concern and contemplation, that unsettles us. Weegee’s photographs often contain someone in the crowd staring back at him — back at us — and reminding us that these photographs are more about the act of looking than the subject we are looking at.
“Their First Murder” was reprinted many times. The exhibition usefully displays its publication in both tabloid press and later in an article in U.S. Camera that noted the photograph was part of the Museum of Modern Art’s “Action Photography” exhibition, where curators called it the “greatest news photograph of the last 10 years.” Throughout, the show makes a careful effort to give context to the publication of Weegee’s work, displaying pages from tabloids and offering touch-screen monitors to explore more precisely his works and history. Soundtracks permeate the galleries. Jazz and polka music mix with the sounds of a passing elevated train and the haunting screams of 1940s police sirens. With the recreation of his studio and the touch-screen displays that playfully present history as an interactive effort, the galleries evoke more a natural history exhibition than a photography show. But such elements underscore how much this show wants to draw viewers back to the era, to give context to these images that so often float about in our visual record of mid-century New York.
The heart of the show is a partial recreation of Weegee’s exhibition at the Photo League in 1941. This strange show-within-a show further invites visitors to imagine the experience of Weegee’s work as it was viewed at the time. The Photo League was a small, progressive group dedicated to social documentary photography. Members turned their cameras toward the destitute and working-class of the city, capturing the specific realties of the margins of the city. While Weegee resisted a political position in his photography — he was keener on profits than political ideas — the Photo League directors appreciated the social diversity and working-class hardships in his images. The centerpiece of that 1941 show was a display of murder photographs, framed on large white boards, with drawings of revolvers in the corners, each dripping with red nail polish that Weegee applied for dramatic affect. Elements of blood and wounds in the photos themselves were also highlighted with red nail polish, turning the images from chiaroscuro to an arresting horror evoking more sensation than artistry.
Eventually, the Photo League’s support faded, for Weegee’s work lacked a documentary stance. But these shows secured for him a reputation beyond tabloid journalism and encouraged him to complete Naked City. It was this book that brought his work to a national audience, with positive reviews in major city newspapers. It also marked the end of his work as a crime journalist of the mean streets of New York. He briefly left New York for Hollywood. He experimented with films and photographic effects, but nothing afterNaked City compares to his work as a photojournalist.
Weegee’s appeal today rests in how his images reflect our contemporary notions of photographs as intangible objects of ephemeral moments. Our photographs are mostly public now, dead objects, as Berger would say, that offer a generalized account of life, found on Flickr pages, online profiles, tabloid websites. Weegee’s scenes of murder and mayhem engage us and haunt us because they fit well with our way of looking: a collage of the strange and surreal, photographs where context is often stripped away, leaving us with images that swirl in the stream of hundreds of other images, each a flash of joy or tragedy echoing other, similar images. A belief in a photograph’s uniqueness evokes a kind of sentimental nostalgia when the digital archive of our lives and the lives around us accumulates with rapid speed. Weegee’s images teach us this. I suspect they feel more contemporary to us then they did in the 1930s and ’40s. Like those haunting faces in the crime scene crowds, which beckon us with their stares, our continuing fascination with Weegee’s murders suggests all that has changed in the simple act of looking. • 27 January 2012
James Polchin teaches writing at NYU and is the founder and editor of the site Writing in Public.
All photographs © Weegee/International Center of Photography.