Saturday, December 31, 2011

Noir: 'Weegee: Murder Is My Business' Captures Gritty 1940s New York

Arthur Felig, AKA Weegee (a bastardization of Ouija, as in the board--a pseudonym chosen for his almost clairvoyant ability to arrive at crime scenes before the police) may be Gotham's most storied photojournalist.

After a short and miserable tenure as a Hollywood paparazzi, Weegee returned to his native New York as a freelancer for numerous publications including the Daily News and Daily Mirror in the 1930s and 40s.
His photos, ideal for those tabloids in which they were featured, offer a look at a lost, gritty and crime-ridden New York replicated in countless film noirs. And Weegee's speciality? Murder.
The cigar-chomping P.T. Barnum of photography, Arthur Fellig was a photographic opportunist who mixed fantasy with reality. A  self-aggrandizing showboat who understood what sold, he prowled the nighttime streets of New York City getting the people what they wanted: murder, fires, car crashes and socialites. And he did it by any means necessary — paying off cops, moving bodies and staging scenes to look authentic. The gritty, shadowy streets he captured came to define the urban jungle of Manhattan that Hollywood imagined onto celluloid.
It was his mystical ability to be first on the scene that earned him the nick-name of Weegee — a phonetic bastardization the Ouija Board. On the obscure LP “Famous Photographers Tell How,” released in 1958, Weegee speaks of clawing his way up the ranks of news photography. Half rose-tinted boasting, half instructional for aspiring snappers, his thick accent relates time spent hanging around Manhattan Police Headquarters waiting for the teletype to rattle off the evening’s subjects. His operation would grow more sophisticated to include police scanners next to his bed, the trunk of his car for developing film and a typewriter for writing captions.
Download:"Weegee" mp3
by Weegee, 1958.
from Famous Photographers Tell How
out of print

His advice mirrors the contradictions evident throughout his photographic archive. “The easiest kind of a job to cover was a murder. The stiff would be laying on the ground. He couldn’t get up and walk away or get temperamental.” This casual street slang and gallows humor is indicative of one facet of Weegee’s career. Taking advantage of the time a body remains at the scene he could arrange shots that carried a  punch-line. In a 1942 photograph above, we watch as policemen cover the victim of a car accident with discarded newspapers. Behind and above the gathered crowd of morbid curiosity seekers is a theater marquee advertising the night’s double-feature — Joy of Living. An over-exposed face cranes his neck to be in on the joke.
Cheap shots were easy sales, but Weegee claims to have fought for humanism. Covering a tenement fire in Harlem we see not the flames and  embers or firefighters battling a blaze. Two women, a mother and daughter, stare grief-stricken into the night. Gripping one another, anguished tears threatening to fall, they are helpless as another daughter and her baby remain trapped on the top floor. “To me that symbolized the lousy tenements, everything else that went with them,” says Weegee. For all his manipulation, this image feels authentic. In the end, some may feel betrayed by his meddling, but the drama of his work is still impressive and widely influential.
In later years Weegee was a celebrity photographer who dabbled in distorted images and flirted with Hollywood fame. He was what would later be called a paparazzo. He published books, both collections and autobiographical, and gave lectures. His status as a photographic pioneer is both irrefutable and problematic, and this nine minutes laid on wax provide a little additional insight into the complex issue of what is real in photography.
Thanks to Boogie Woogie Flu for posting this excellent audio gem.
Check out a sampling of Weegee's photos below and for more, don't miss "Weegee: Murder Is My Business" opening at the International Center for Photography on January 20th. The exhibit will draw from the museum's extensive Weegee Archive and will include environmental recreations of Weegee's apartment and exhibitions.

Weegee’s 'Naked Hollywood' at MOCA 

Los Angeles Times Culture Monster


In 1947, Weegee relocated to Los Angeles to take on the equally formidable Hollywood scene.
 In conjunction with the Getty-sponsored Pacific Standard Time exploration of postwar L.A. art, the Museum of Contemporary Art is presenting "Naked Hollywood: Weegee in Los Angeles," billed as the first exhibit here devoted to work he produced in Southern California, including photos from his 1953 book "Naked Hollywood."
On view are his photos of striptease artists, costume shops, billboards and distorted images of movies stars such as Marilyn Monroe. Nearly 200 images, some never before seen, are drawn from the International Center of Photography, the Matthew Marks Gallery in New York and private collections.
 Soon after his arrival, Weegee quickly realized what a strange culture Hollywood was and set about developing a trick elastic lens in response. It would stretch and twist an otherwise glamorous photograph into something grotesque, revealing the ugly side of celebrity.
"He was deeply critical and cutting in his attitude toward stardom," said Richard Meyer, curator of the MOCA exhibition and an associate professor of art history and fine arts at USC. "Fame itself is a type of distortion. It's created through manipulation of images."
 Weegee wasn't considered a paparazzi in its current 24-hour stalking form, but he did capture stars in unflattering moments and unusual angles. One example is a 1951 photo of a voluptuous Elizabeth Taylor consuming her meal at an awards dinner. "Distorting the image of a star was his way of bringing them down a peg for their excesses," noted Meyer.

Weegee was also fascinated by the phenomenon of fandom, snapping countless photos of onlookers waiting to see stars at movie premieres. He'd zoom in on their awestruck and often devastated faces when they didn't get an autograph after waiting all night.

Despite his disdain for the culture of celebrity, Weegee experimented with filmmaking and often injected himself into the business as an actor, consultant and set photographer (for example, on Stanley Kubrick's "Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb"). "His aspirations of becoming a rich and famous star were never realized, so he moved back to "civilization," what he called New York City, in early 1952, said Meyer. He was the inspiration for Joe Pesci's character in "The Public Eye."
 The self-taught photographer was born Usher Fellig in 1899 in what is now Ukraine and died in 1968.
The show runs through Feb. 27.
Museum of Contemporary Art, 250 South Grand Avenue  Los Angeles, (213) 626-6222. General Admission: $10
 -- Liesl Bradner

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