Weegee: self-promotion is his business

Who doesn’t love Weegee?  Born Usher Fellig in Austria, he renamed himself Arthur in the US and became famous as Weegee, but who would have thought in, say, 1941 that his documentation of murder and mayhem among post-Prohibition small-time gangsters for tabloid newspapers would bring him both critical respect and infamy that would endure all these decades later?  The exhibit of his photographs “Murder is My Business” now at the International Center of Photography (through 2 September 2012) provides an opportunity to contemplate, once again, the strange phenomenon of Weegee’s now nearly universal regard, by high art audiences and low.

The exhibit is the latest in a series at the ICP drawn from a trove of Weegee photographs long thought lost and “Murder is My Business” brings together Weegee’s two great subjects: the rhythms and (often violent) rituals of immigrant life in downtown New York and his own starring role as crime photographer.  A large part of Weegee’s appeal is that he shot with a cinematic film noir-ish eye, as if everything that happened in his New York was gritty in the most unreal possible way: even the cloth-draped bodies lying in puddles of blood look more staged than shocking.  This Hollywood sensibility extended to Weegee the man; or, you could say, to “Weegee” the character as played by Arthur Fellig.  That Weegee was an indefatigable self-promoter is well known but this exhibit lays bare the mechanics by which he insinuated himself into the story.  Often, the fact that Weegee was first on the scene was more prominently reported than the murder at the scene itself and there is image after image in which he stands by the body, ostensibly to represent the universal spectator but more, it seems, to make sure Weegee is in the picture.  The exhibit does his reputation no favors in this regard but he is forgiven this, in part, because there is such showmanship to the effort and because Hollywood, too, was built by central European immigrants like himself who would never be cast as leading men so created an artificial world in which they would always get top billing.  It takes chutzpah to to do that and Weegee abounded in it.

 

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