“Everybody ought to go careful in a city like this,” Joseph Cotten’s character Holly Martins is warned in The Third Man, the classic 1949 film noir that takes place in a war fractured Vienna. The line came into my head while viewing the photographs in Weegee: Murder is My Business at the International Center of Photography (ICP), where corpse after splayed corpse was flashbulb lit on the New York streets, crowds watching in curiousity or strange amusement while lantern-jawed police officers and a fedora-wearing photographer analyzed the scene.
Despite their expressionistic angles and hardboiled characters straight out of the shadowy films of Fritz Lang and Otto Preminger, these were photographs of real New York crimes, taken by that notorious cigar-chewing tabloid photographer who called himself Weegee. The city in his photographs was a dense maze of people and darkness with sudden illuminations from the barrels of guns and tenement fires. Above all other gruesome scenes, from car crashes to seedy city squalor, what he liked to document most were the murders.
Weegee, who was born in Austria as Usher Fellig, came to the United States in 1910 and changed his name to Arthur. After a series of odd jobs revolving around photography and darkrooms, he established himself as a freelance photographer in 1935 and built a reputation for shining a hard, unflinching light on the gritty, nocturnal world seldom seen by much of New York City.
When his photographs were published in the tabloids, the grisly urban underbelly was suddenly rolled into public view, the sheet pulled back off the fresh bodies. It helped that his tabloid career, which continued until 1946, occurred at a time when New York City had eight daily newspapers that were competing with one another for sensational stories of organized crime, public bombings and the poverty of the Great Depression.
His curious pseudonym was a play on “Ouija,” as in the occult parlor game, which was earned by his unique ability to be at the right place at the right time, sometimes even before the police.
The exhibit at ICP starts with a largescale photograph of Weegee sitting on a fire escape with his camera behind a huge gun, a sign for the Frank Lava Gunsmith store below. In the gallery itself, there is a duplicate of this gun hanging above the photograph, right alongside the blaring sans serif WEEGEE MURDER IS MY BUSINESS exhibit title text. At least you know what you’re getting into.
The beginning of the exhibit is devoted to Weegee himself, and it touches on how he crafted his tough guy image through staged photographs. One of these has him casually holding a bomb, another holding his camera and clinching a cigar in his teeth with “The Genuis [sic] of the Camera” written below. If you are going to proclaim yourself a “genuis” it’s probably best to spellcheck it, but sleepless crime photographers probably don’t have much time for dictionaries.
In another photograph Weegee is shown speculating over debris from a 1940 building bombing, and then in another playing the violin next to a pile of “Loot,” including instruments and other presumably stolen or counterfeit items.
Some personal belongings are displayed, including flashbulbs and cameras, as well as some pages from a manuscript (titled, “Murder Is My Business”), and a reconstruction of his studio apartment. He extensively documented this apartment, which was conveniently located at 5 Centre Market Place across from police headquarters. To reflect his growing popularity, he carefully posed souvenirs, awards and news/magazine clippings in his photographs. One of his early photo montages for Life magazine is a play-by-play of a police procedural, from arrest to incarceration, with Weegee standing in for the criminal. The editors at Life were so fascinated with this strange man that they decided to scrap the piece and do the story on him instead.
ICP got lucky in 1993, when Wilma Wilcox, the late Weegee’s lady friend who cared for him in his final years, donated an archive of 20,000 photographs, negatives, personal artifacts and other documents and materials to the institution. Weegee: Murder Is My Business is the fifth Weegee exhibit to be staged at ICP, following Weegee the Famous (1977, curated by Wilcox), Weegee’s World: Life, Death and the Human Drama (1998), Weegee’s Trick Photography (2002) and Unknown Weegee (2006). It seems that just like the tabloid readers of the Great Depression, we can’t get enough of Weegee’s expertly lurid photographs.
Murder Is My Business was the title Weegee used for his self-curated 1941 exhibit at the Photo League, where he pinned and pasted his photographs beneath titles like “MURDER” (quotations included) and SUNDAY TRAGEDY. These black and white images had their blood splatters garishly “enhanced” by Weegee with red nail polish (the wall text refers to these as “hand-colored graphic elements,” which is incredibly generous). I especially liked the original comment book from the exhibit, which included one admirer asking: “Are there any schools teaching how to be Weegees?”
Like craning your neck at a car crash, the photographs are all inherently interesting and guiltily entertaining. However, the exhibit seems structured with the fear that you might somehow get bored with all the mayhem and bodies stuffed in trunks. There are interactive touch screens that go into detail on individual murders, and a confusing assortment of crime photographs that were not taken by Weegee placed directly in the show.
A wall of photographs by members of the Photo League, which Weegee was a member of, has no other purpose but to show more about life in the 1930s/40s and the Photo League mission, which seems like it would take a whole exhibit to do properly. Most distracting is a rather scandalous video Weegee made of the beach at Coney Island, with lingering shots of tight fitting swimsuits on lovely sunbathing ladies. What does this have to do with the business of murder?
There is one photograph of Coney Island that fits with the unsettling spirit of the exhibit, which is a crowd shot where a man in what looks like a gas mask is standing tall above the rest of the beachgoers. According to the wall text, this man said he liked to wear the mask to scare people. It still works!
If you look at every one of the over 100 photographs in the exhibit, you will be exhausted and want to take a break in the museum’s café, where you will find that you are still in Weegee’s sardonic world. On one wall is a photograph of “Inflating Santa Claus for the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, November 21, 1940,” where the giant balloon St. Nick is heavily reclined much like a cadaver, and on another wall is a street scene of Sixth Avenue between 43rd and 44th Street, which happens to be where ICP is located.
Beyond the secret thrill of looking at the crime photographs, what I liked most about the exhibit was getting a chance to peer back to a more feral New York. Murder isn’t eradicated from the city, but probably no photographer in New York today would claim, like Weegee, to have witnessed 5,000 murders. Yet even if the city is different, much is still the same. The remaining tabloids and online news blogs still relish a horrific crime, publishing photos when they can that stretch to the edges of decency. New York’s buildings tend not to change much from the waist up, at least in the tenement areas, and it’s possible to see the ghost of the city of the 1930s and 40s with a twist of the head upward. And even if on-the-spot crime photography has been almost completely relinquished to the cellphone-carrying masses, the crowds still gather at wrecks and carnage. And we find ourselves drawn to join them.
Weegee: Murder Is My Business continues at the International Center of Photography (1133 Sixth Avenue, Manhattan) through September 2, 2012.