Aestheticians and artists have long claimed that symmetry is the very essence of what constitutes the beautiful. Even science concurs: in various studies men and women deemed members of the opposite sex with facial and bodily symmetry as healthier and more attractive than less symmetrical counterparts. We crave, it seems, both material and moral balance: our wish to stand upright is probably the same as our hope that evil be countered by equal parts good: Neither body or soul should tip into the perilous domain of asymmetry.
Weegee, the New York tabloid photographer, who documented street life in the “naked city” in the 1930s and 40s, had an eye for the asymmetrical. His principle subject was public mayhem: the crime and criminals that enacted their traumatic narratives in public. Featured in the prominent daily newspapers, his photos neatly captured the chaos of lived catastrophe: bodies sprawled on curbs; perps being hustled through precinct doors; crowds, gape-mouthed or laughing, surging at the police perimeter around a bloody accident.
Weegee’s (born Arthur Fellig, his pseudonym derived from the Ouiji board and referenced his supposedly preternatural ability to arrive just when something newsworthy happened) images typify the art of apparent artlessness; his compositions strike us as having been extracted from the world rather than imposed upon it. The roll and pitch of street life is barely contained within his frames; the cameraman himself (Weegee darted about town in car whose trunk was crammed with camera equipment, a portable darkroom, typewriter, cigars, and salami) seems to be caught up in the maelstrom of lights, sirens, gunshots, and the thud of bodies.
Weegee found beauty in the mess: the chance tumble of a corpse, it’s inelegant posture, hand outstretched toward a pistol, or the gawker, her neck straining and eyes aflame with mortal revelation. But one of the images currently on display at the International Center for Photography show, Weegee: Murder Is My Business, incorporates many of the formal imperatives of the most classical art. The image that appeared in the Daily News presents two party-going Brooklynites, Charles Sodokoff and Arthur Webber, sitting in a paddy wagon. The accompanying copy read: “In Top Hats — In Trouble” and went on to describe how the “[b]oys were tippling at Astor Bar Saturday night when they decided to slide down banisters for fun (???). Cop was called and they assaulted him.”
The preceding hijinks may have been unruly but Weegee’s depiction of the aftermath contains formal elements that could mark a scene painted by Poussin or Raphael. Both men hide their faces with identical hats, both wear satin striped black pants, black shoes, silk socks, and black coats. The shine on their shoes allows a call-and-response of highlights; their bodies mirror one another in nearly every aspect, even to the four fingers each man displays across the crown of his hat. A spare tire affixed to the wall seems akin to a classical archway, through which, in a Renaissance painting we would view a distant village.
Unlike many of Weegee’s subjects — gangsters or gaudy citizens of the demimonde—who faced his camera with flagrant disregard, Charles and Arthur are twinned in their shame. Their desire to hide could be attributed to the location of their arrests — the bar at the Hotel Astor, the most famous gay rendezvous in all New York. These two young men — the paper gave their ages 28 and 32, respectively — very likely have more to hide than an encounter with the police. Even in the highly stylized composition, Weegee’s tabloid sensibility is felt; the camera seems to push into the van, it’s flash pressing against them, illuminating the back wall so as to contrast the darkness of their garb and articulate every last detail — the folds of the coats, the buttons, the crescent trace of each man’s hair just above the hat. They may have cloaked their faces, but the photographer subjects everything else to meticulous inspection: they are exposed in their concealment.
The strange allure of the image resides in this revealed furtiveness. The viewer registers the men’s fear — as well as their need to not appear too afraid. Such a perceived overreaction might prove incriminating to friends and family members opening their newspapers the next morning. After all, what’s to hide — just a bit of a bar brawl. Embodying the paradox of exposure and enclosure, the symmetry intensifies the actual tightening and tensing of bodies by forcing them into such overly precise iconography. Symmetry thus reads as a kind of straightjacket, one that articulates the sensation of emotional compression surely felt by Charles and Arthur as they cringed from the camera’s pursuit. Rather than serving the beautiful, an ideal of physical and moral balance, the symmetry at work is a force of restriction, of intimidation.
A paparazzi, avant le lettre, Weegee stalked damage and distress and played it as he found it — disarrayed and raw. Yet in this photograph he drew on the polite aesthetics of the academy to expose not only his subjects but, via his classical touch, something of the nature of his craft — how the hunter corners his prey.
Single Point Perspective is an occasional series from Hyperallergic Weekend that features texts about single works of art and the currents they ride on.
Weegee: Murder Is My Business continues at the International Center of Photography (1133 Sixth Avenue, Midtown, Manhattan) through September 2.