Naked Images 

Exhibit of legendary news photographer's work captures human experience in stark black and white

Exhibit of legendary news photographer's work captures human experience in stark black and white

Weegee's World: Life, Death, and the Human Drama

Through Apr. 22

Cheekwood Museum of Art, 1200 Forrest Park Dr.

Hours: 9:30 a.m.-4:30 p.m. Mon.-Sat.; 11 a.m.-4:30 p.m. Sun.

For information, call 356-8000 or go to http://www.cheekwood.org.

Photography was still a relatively new technology in 1914 when a teenager named Arthur Fellig decided it was a way to make a fast buck. After all, it beat selling household items from a pushcart around New York’s Lower East Side like his immigrant father or working as a janitor in exchange for rent like his mother. When Fellig noticed a street photographer snapping pictures of kids on a pony and then peddling the tintypes to their doting parents, he signed on as the man’s assistant. Soon the enterprising Fellig had his own pony photography business and by 1918 landed his first job in a photography studio, sweeping floors and running errands. By the 1930s Fellig was a star—the photojournalist known as Weegee, whose uncanny sense of the sensational has influenced each generation of news photographers since.

If Weegee isn’t exactly a household name today, he’s much more of one since 250 of his images began touring art museums around the world three years ago. That show, making its only stop in the Southeast at Cheekwood, offers a fascinating look at the life work of a man who, if he didn’t exactly invent tabloid photojournalism, certainly perfected it. In the process, though Weegee himself never fully realized it, he made an art out of it too. Graphic images of murders, fires, and auto accidents, as well as unblinking looks at the highs and lows of human society, were Weegee’s bread and butter, and from 1935 to 1945 New Yorkers feasted on his photos splashed across the front pages of the city’s daily newspapers. Almost from the beginning, though, the art world recognized that Weegee’s photos were special: Both the Photo League and the Museum of Modern Art included his work in shows in the 1940s.

Much has been made—by Weegee and others—about the photographer’s knack for being in the right place at the right time to get these shots. One story goes that the photographer took his professional name from the Ouija board game, and Weegee himself claimed a sort of psychic connection with disaster, saying that his elbow itched before something awful was about to happen. (A less colorful explanation for his name is that he got it while working for The New York Times drying prints with a squeegee.) Being the first photographer allowed to use a short-wave police radio in his car didn’t hurt Weegee’s chances of being first at the scene of the crime either. And we now know that Weegee wasn’t above staging a great photographic moment or two. Looking at these photos 60 years after the fact, though, one is struck not so much by what Weegee photographed as how he did so. “I don’t know that his images are that recognizable today, even in the art world,” says Cheekwood curator Rusty Freeman. “It’s really Weegee’s aesthetic—his use of dark shadows and harsh light—that’s unmistakable.”

Weegee’s unique way of capturing life and death in New York City is at least a partial result of the equipment of the era and the nighttime hours during which he was compelled to shoot. (Murders and fires never seem to happen at noon.) He used a Speed Graphic 4-by-5-inch camera with a high-wattage flashgun. He liked to get in close on his subjects, and the flash turned faces into chalk-white suns glowing in the New York night. Still, there is more to Weegee’s style than stark lighting and in-your-face compositions. In one of his most famous photos, which Weegee captioned “Their First Murder,” a crowd expresses every reaction imaginable to a gangland murder. It is in their faces we see the murder—this is Weegee without a corpse for once—and what it means to them. There is fear, revulsion, sorrow, and even a “gee, someone’s taking my photo” glee in these faces. “We see this amazing medley of all these different emotions caught in one decisive moment,” Freeman says. “It was Weegee’s gift to be able to get that on film.”

Ironically, Weegee himself may not have considered that to be his real gift, though by all accounts he was proud of his news photography and tirelessly promoted himself as the premier photojournalist of his time. Still, after publishing a successful book of his images called Naked City in 1945, he abandoned photojournalism and left New York for what he hoped would be a career in Hollywood as an art photographer and filmmaker. There he landed some bit parts in films, snapped a few celebrities like Clark Gable and Marilyn Monroe, and created what he called his “distortion” series of photographs. He experimented with special lenses and exposures to produce elongated nudes with multiple breasts and funhouse-mirror portraits of celebrities. Some of these curiosities are included in the Cheekwood show, though none stands the test of time as art.

“After 1945, Weegee tried to go into art-in-quotes, and he thought his distortions and caricatures would be that for him,” Freeman says. “I think it’s much easier for an artist to evaluate the work of others than his own, and that’s what happened to Weegee.”

In 1952, Weegee moved back to New York, where he continued to experiment with his photographic distortions, some of which were published in Vogue in 1955. He traveled and lectured in Europe and served as a consultant on Stanley Kubrick’s 1958 film Dr. Strangelove, an evocative creative collaboration if ever there was one. Weegee died in 1968 in the city that had made him—and his art. “When you find yourself beginning to feel a bond between yourself and the people you photograph, when you laugh and cry with their laughter and tears, you will know you are on the right track,” Weegee once wrote. If he didn’t stay on track himself throughout his career, he stuck with it long enough to produce some of the most memorable photographs of the 20th century.

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