26 July 2012

Murder Is My Business

Weegee shooting outside his studio (ca. 1939).

With the winning combination of photography, true crime, and New York, the International Center for Photography (ICP) exhibit “Weegee: Murder Is My Business” was bound to be a favourite of mine this summer. And after a recent viewing, I’m happy to report it didn’t disappoint.

Arthur Fellig (1899-1968), who immigrated to New York as a young boy, worked in a variety of photography-related jobs from photographer’s assistant to darkroom technician before striking out on his own as a freelance photographer. Nicknamed Weegee after the Ouija board for his uncanny ability to get to the scene right before a crime occurred, he become one of the best-known photographers in New York. With his trademark cigar in mouth and Speed Graphic camera in hand Weegee ushered in what would become known as tabloid journalism.

The ICP exhibit focuses on the years 1935-1946 when Weegee was at the height of his fame. During this time, he lived across the street from Police Headquarters in a tiny cold-water studio with just the bare minimums—a single bed, a beat-up desk, a police radio. His studio is partially recreated in the exhibit, which along with his camera, oversized press badge, and hat on display help to bring to life the man behind the photos.

"Mr. Esposito in line for night court" Weegee (January 16, 1941).

Weegee strove to beat the police to the scene of a crime and to see his photos printed first. To facilitate this need, he drove a 1938 Chevy Coupe, which acted as an office on wheels. Outfitted with a police radio, it included a portable dark room, typewriter, and change of clothes (along with a supply of cigars), allowing Weegee to get his photos and copy (he often wrote his own captions) to the Daily NewsHerald-TribuneJournal-American, PM, PostSun, or World-Telegram before his competition. Always aware of his public image, he didn't shy away from getting his own face in the papers and took to stamping his photos “Weegee the Famous.” In 1945, he published many of his images and prose in a book, Naked City, which became a bestseller.

Weegee’s beat was the streets of New York. In particular, the streets at night (that's when murder happened). And with his blinding bright flash, he captured New York in all its grimy realism. Murder suspects hide their faces, children stare right at the camera, fires blaze, cops go about their business. In one image, candy-store owner Joseph Gallichio lays dead while his neighbours look on. In another image, a pristine white hat sits upright near the head of its murdered owner, Dominic Didato. Yet there is also humour to be found in some of the images. In one section, cross-dressing men descend from the back of a police wagon, smiling and posing for the camera like models on a runway.

"Their First Murder" Weegee (October 9, 1941). 

Part of the exhibit is devoted to Weegee’s show at the Photo League in 1941 (the title for this exhibit comes from that show). Weegee’s homemade displays are recreated including the use of red nail polish on the white board to mimic blood (Weegee’s idea). The guest books from the 1941 show make for great reading; one visitor complains about the unprofessional quality of the displays while another innocently asks how one can become a Weegee.

Yet crime wasn’t the only topic that interested Weegee. Toward the end of the exhibit visitors can watch some color footage of people at Coney Island that he shot in 1948. The colour lends a modern air to the people playing and laughing on the beach and proves that murder was not Weegee's only business.

The exhibit is at the ICP through September 2, 2012. For more information, visit their website here.

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