29
Aug
12

Exhibition: ‘Weegee: Murder Is My Business’ at the International Center of Photography, New York

Exhibition dates: 20th January – 2nd September 2012

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Weegee
Untitled [Anthony Esposito, booked on suspicion of killing a policeman, New York]
January 16, 1941
Silver gelatin photograph
© Weegee/International Center of Photography

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Weegee
The dead man’s wife arrived…and then she collapsed
ca. 1940
Silver gelatin photograph
© Weegee/International Center of Photography

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Weegee
Girl jumped out of car, and was killed, on Park Ave.,
ca. 1938
Silver gelatin photograph
© Weegee/International Center of Photography

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“People are so wonderful that a photographer has only to wait for that breathless moment to capture what he wants on film… and when that split second of time is gone, it’s dead and can never be brought back.”

“For the pictures… I was on the scene; sometimes drawn there by some power I can’t explain, and I caught the New Yorkers with their masks off… not afraid to Laugh, Cry, or Make Love. What I felt I photographed, laughing and crying with them.”

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Arthur Fellig (aka Weegee, 1899-1968)

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“Weegee’s work is connected by an umbilical cord to darkness; his images emerged from Gotham City’s nocturnal penumbra, spectrally streaked by streetlights, lit brightly only where there was a human focus, a tabloid John Alton at work.

Weegee called it his “Rembrandt light” as he caught the human protagonists in the white glare of his photo flash, the scene otherwise enveloped in darkness. Weegee’s news pictures were never haphazard snapshots, albeit they were taken by a man who had happenstance and chance as his helpmates; he and his camera, with its flash, seem to have a fateful meeting with his human subjects; pictures seem perfectly arranged, and what we focus on is their human content. Weegee is the quintessential noir photographer.”

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Mark Svetov. Life and Death (Mostly Death) in the Streets (2010) on American Suburb X website

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If you want a good read about the life and times of Weegee then Mark Svetov’s Life and Death (Mostly Death) in the Streets (2010) on American Suburb X website is the way to go. I can’t really add much to this excellent piece of writing in terms of the history of the man and the social milieu in which he surrounded himself. What I can comment on are my personal feelings about his photographs.

Weegee’s photographs are no masterpiece of fine art printing, they are rough and direct, and I love them all the more for this quality. Their roughness – all sellotaped over, edges cut at odd angles, drawn and written on – only adds to their power and immediacy. If you can call photographs of dead bodies in the street vibrant and alive, then these photographs are just that. Svetov sees Weegee as the quintessential noir photographer; I see him not so much as that but as a sensitive, formalist photographer, a wonderful collagist and an artist who is a precursor to the pop art of the mid-late 1950s (think Warhol’s screen prints of the electric chair, or his mangled car crash series).

In the installation photographs of the exhibition Weegee: Murder Is My Business at the Photo League, New York (1941, see below) you get a sense of this master of assemblage, the animator and promoter (another pop trait!) at work. The large prints are casually pinned to the back board, surrounded by drawings of guns with smoke emanating from their barrels, cause of death certificates, photographs of Weegee himself “On the Spot”, Weegee’s press pass, newspaper clippings about the man and his work (including a photograph of his tiny bedroom) where Weegee “introduces” himself to his audience. The photographs flow around the room, from Faces, to Murder and Society. People are drawn into the aura of these photographs, you can see them leaning forward to take in every detail. They peer intently at the them trying to decipher every nuance of the narrative being told (the frequent hats lying about, the discarded pistols, the hand emerging from underneath the draped sheet).

As Svetov notes, Weegee’s news pictures were never haphazard snapshots, for they always seem perfectly arranged. Underneath the spontaneity and the humanism imparted by the artist is that fact that Weegee is a master of formalism. He knows exactly how to structure the picture plane as a classical pianist knows how to bring alive the themes of a Mozart sonata. Usually arriving before any other photographer because he lived opposite the police station and had a police radio in his car, Weegee “cased the joint” as I would put it, prowling quickly around the scene to get the best angle, the best shot before other photographers arrived or the scene was closed off by police. This instinctive framing only comes through having a good eye and training that eye so that what to shoot and how to crop the scene “in camera” becomes second nature.

Evidence of the formal structure implicit in Weegee’s photographs can be seen in my analysis of two photographs Line-Up for Night Court (ca. 1941, below) and Police officer and assistant removing body of Reception Hospital ambulance driver Morris Linker from East River, New York (August 24, 1943, below). In the first image the epicentre (or the enigma if you like) of the photograph is the dance of hands at the lower centre of the image, formed by two triangles and emphasised by two radial diagonals. The top points of the upper triangle are anchored by the men and women at both windows (see detail photographs), the patriarchal men in suit and tie at one window – a detective, a chief of police? – separated from the woman at another. Weegee’s splits this triangle with his frieze of faces showing the depths of human despair, despondency and ambivalence.

The second image has a much more complicated structure. In the first analysis we observe the different horizontal, vertical and diagonal planes as they march up the photograph. The “heart” of this image, where the yellow lines cross, is actually a point of absence. Look at the real photograph: it is the heart shaped empty space between the man’s outstretched hands that form the emotional centre of the image. In the second analysis we can simplify this down into a zigzagging line that passes directly through this point. To see this, to assess this and visualise the flowing movement in a split second is in any visual language outstanding. Weegee wasn’t averse to manipulating his images to achieve the desired result. The photograph Hold up man killed (November 24, 1941, below) shows his notations over the top of the image, the crop he envisaged and the words “Take out hat” and “Make sock black” so that he achieved the desired dynamic within the photograph.

Weegee was a master of flash and the use of foreshortening – to create atmosphere in the first instance and used as a visual entre into the photographs in the second. Sometimes he combines both. The policeman at left in Line-Up for Night Court is both out of focus and the highlights (his face) are blown out by the flash. Does this matter: not one iota, for the policeman “grounds” the whole left hand side of the image. Again, in Murder (ca. 1940, below) the backside of the policeman is blown out by the flash but this only leads the eye of the viewer to the foreshortened body of the murder victim nestled in the crook of his knee and then onto the starkly lit pram, beyond. Finally, in Hold up man killed (November 24, 1941, below) the feet of the hold up man actually lead the viewer into the space between the two policeman’s shoes were the Surgeon from Gouverneur Hospital crouches over the body. Weegee also loved to weave detail into his images, so that even though the story is about human content, as Svetov observes, it is just as much about human materiality as well: notice the reflection of people in the car bonnet in At an East Side Murder (1943, below) at lower left and then the procession of worn shoes and the bagginess of the trousers – I didn’t realised they wore their trousers so baggy in the 1940s!

Svetlov sees Weegee’s photgraphs as containing an almost sacred squalor, a brash but anguished cry in an endless nightscape with nothing judgemental or distanced about them. I concur with the last part for Weegee was a man of the people whom he photographed. On the other points I am less sure: to me they are about light not darkness. They are about the aftermath of atrocity, of living, human beings dealing with death and its consequences. I see nothing sacred about this squalor. The photographs are about shining a light into darkness, the darkness that every human being must confront: the fact that we all have to die, somewhere, sometime, in the end.

Dr Marcus Bunyan for the Art Blart blog

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Many thankx to the International Center of Photography for allowing me to publish the photographs in the posting. Please click on the photographs for a larger version of the image.

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Weegee
Untitled [Installation view of “Weegee: Murder Is My Business” at the Photo League, New York]
1941
Silver gelatin photographs
© Weegee/International Center of Photography

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Text and captions from the original Murder Is My Business exhibition:

  • “Introducing Weegee”
  • “Due to an increase in MURDERS The Photo League presents 2nd Edition of “MURDER IS MY BUSNESS” by Weegee”
  • “Weegee Lives For His Work And Thinks Before Shooting” (newspaper headline on the “Weegee” board at left)
  • “This space reserved for the latest muders”
  • “MURDER Manhattan bloodbath”
  • “Arthur Fellig Photographer / Do not disturbe / Except in case of Fire, Murder or Snow Storm” (caption underneath photograph)
  • “Why did you kill your Sweetie”?  (caption underneath photograph)
  • “HUMAN BODY MINUS HEAD FOUND ON STREET” (caption underneath photograph)
  • “Cop & human head in package” (caption underneath photograph)
  • “Killed her husband after drinking brawl” (caption underneath photograph)
  • “Just a cheap murder” (caption underneath photograph)
  • “My man” (caption underneath photograph)
  • “Who done that” (caption underneath photograph)

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“Weegee’s captions provided a visceral vernacular for the almost-sacred squalor of his imagery (see “Weegee’s Words” for a sampling). Taken together, they packed more than a mere punch; they were a brash but anguished cry in an endless nightscape. More than mere documents of a violent era, they also exuded a humanity that could only come from the photographer himself. There was nothing judgmental or distanced in Weegee’s work; he was the antithesis of the “slickers” who worked for glossy magazines. He remained a man essentially from the same New York working-class as the people he chose to photograph.”

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Mark Svetov. Life and Death (Mostly Death) in the Streets (2010) on American Suburb X website

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Weegee
Untitled [“Ruth Snyder Murder” wax display, Eden Musée, Coney Island, New York]
ca. 1941
Silver gelatin photograph
© Weegee/International Center of Photography

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Unidentified Photographer
On the Spot
December 9, 1939
© Weegee/International Center of Photography

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Weegee
Line-Up for Night Court
ca. 1941
Silver gelatin photograph
© Weegee/International Center of Photography

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Construction of the pictorial plane in Line-Up for Night Court

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Weegee
Line-Up for Night Court (details)
ca. 1941
Silver gelatin photograph
© Weegee/International Center of Photography

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Weegee
At an East Side Murder
1943
Silver gelatin photograph
© Weegee/International Center of Photography

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Weegee
At an East Side Murder (details)
1943
Silver gelatin photograph
© Weegee/International Center of Photography

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Weegee
Untitled [Hats in a pool room, Mulberry Street, New York]
ca. 1943
© Weegee/International Center of Photography

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“Gangland murders, gruesome car crashes, and perilous tenement fires were for the photographer Weegee (1899-1968) the staples of his flashlit black-and-white work as a freelance photojournalist in the mid­1930s. Such graphically dramatic and sometimes sensationalistic photographs of New York crimes and news events set the standard for what has since become known as tabloid journalism. In fact, for one intense decade, between 1935 and 1946, Weegee was perhaps the most relentlessly inventive figure in American photography. A surprising new exhibition at the International Center of Photography (1133 Avenue of the Americas at 43rd Street), titled Weegee: Murder Is My Business and organized by ICP Chief Curator Brian Wallis, will present some rare examples of Weegee’s most famous and iconic images, and will consider his early work in the context of its original presentation in historical newspapers and exhibitions, as well as Weegee’s own books and films.

Taking its title from Weegee’s self-curated exhibition at the Photo League in 1941, Murder Is My Business looks at the urban violence and mayhem that was the focus of his early work. As a freelance photographer at a time when New York City had at least eight daily newspapers and when wire services were just beginning to handle photos, Weegee was challenged to capture unique images of newsworthy events and distribute them quickly. He worked almost exclusively at night, setting out from his small apartment across from police headquarters when news of a new crime came chattering across his police-band radio receiver. Often arriving before the police themselves, Weegee carefully cased each scene to discover the best angle. Murders, he claimed, were the easiest to photograph because the subjects never moved or got temperamental.

Weegee’s rising career as a news photographer in the 1930s coincided with the heyday of Murder Inc., the Jewish gang from Brownsville who served as paid hitmen for The Syndicate, a confederation of mostly Italian crime bosses in New York. As a wave of governmental and legal crackdowns swept the city between 1935 and 1941, the rate of organized murders of small-time wiseguys and potential stool pigeons increased dramatically. Weegee often worked closely with the police but also befriended high-profile criminals like Bugsy Siegel, Lucky Luciano, and Legs Diamond. Weegee called himself the “official photographer for Murder Inc.” and claimed to have covered 5,000 murders, a count that is perhaps only slightly exaggerated. In asserting the true nature of his business, Weegee proudly displayed his check stub from LIFE magazine that paid him $35 for two murders, slightly more, he said, for the one that used more bullets.

Selling his photographs to a variety of New York newspapers in the 1930s, and later working as a stringer for the short-lived daily newspaper PM (1940-48), Weegee established a highly subjective approach to both photographs and texts that was distinctly different from that promoted in most dailies and picture magazines. Utilizing other distribution venues, Weegee also wrote extensively (including his autobiographical Naked City, published in 1945) and organized his own exhibitions at the Photo League, the influential photographic organization that promoted politically committed pictures, particularly of the working classes. In 1941, Weegee installed two back-to-back exhibitions in the League’s headquarters. This visibility helped promote Weegee’s growing reputation as a news photographer, and he began stamping his prints “Weegee the Famous.” The general acceptance of his punchy photographic style, which did not shy away from lower-class subjects and humanistic narratives, led to the acquisition of his work by the Museum of Modern Art and inclusion in two group shows there, in 1943 and 1945.

“Weegee has often been dismissed as an aberration or as a naive photographer, but he was in fact one of the most original and enterprising photojournalists of the 1930s and ’40s. His best photographs combine wit, daring, and surprisingly original points of view, particularly when considered in light of contemporaneous press photos and documentary photography. He favored unabashedly low-culture or tabloid subjects and approaches, but his Depression-era New York photographs need to be considered seriously alongside other key documentarians of the thirties, such as Dorothea Lange, Robert Capa, Walker Evans, and Berenice Abbott,” said Wallis.

The exhibition will feature over 100 original photographs, drawn primarily from the comprehensive Weegee Archive of over 20,000 prints at ICP, as well as period newspapers, magazines, and films. It will also include partial reconstructions of Weegee’s studio and his Photo League exhibition. The four galleries will each feature a touch-screen monitor allowing visitors to explore further details regarding the images and artifacts in that room.”

Press release from the ICP

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Weegee
Untitled [Body of Dominick Didato, Elizabeth Street, New York]
August 7, 1936
Silver gelatin photograph
© Weegee/International Center of Photography

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Weegee
Murder
ca. 1940
Silver gelatin photograph
© Weegee/International Center of Photography

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Weegee
Untitled [Police officer and lodge member looking at blanket-covered body of woman trampled to death in excursion-ship stampede, New York]
August 18, 1941
Silver gelatin photograph
© Weegee/International Center of Photography

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Weegee
Hold up man killed
November 24, 1941
Silver gelatin photograph
© Weegee/International Center of Photography

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Weegee
Untitled [Police officer and assistant removing body of Reception Hospital ambulance driver Morris Linker from East River, New York]
August 24, 1943
Silver gelatin photograph
© Weegee/International Center of Photography

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Pictorial construction of Police officer and assistant removing body of Reception Hospital ambulance driver Morris

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International Center of Photography
1133 Avenue of the Americas at 43rd Street
New York NY 10036
T: 212 857 0045

Opening hours:
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

International Center of Photography website

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Dr Marcus Bunyan

Dr Marcus Bunyan is an Australian artist and writer. His work explores the boundaries of identity and place. He writes the Art Blart blog which reviews exhibitions in Melbourne, Australia and posts exhibitions from around the world. He has a Dr of Philosophy from RMIT University, Melbourne and is currently studying a Master of Art Curatorship at The University of Melbourne.

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