Shots in the Dark

Weegee/International Center of Photography/Daniel Blau, Munich
Firemen at Coney Island, New Year’s Eve, 1940

Weegee’s people are generally funny-looking and badly dressed. Many of them are murdered—the blood pooling around their heads, some with their ankles oddly crossed as if they are taking a nap in the gutter. Their cars are wrecked, their tenements gutted by fire, their loved ones sobbing in the streets. Even their pets look morose. The rare happy ones are celebrating Hitler’s defeat or stampeding through the lobby of the Roxy Theatre in Times Square to score seats for Jimmy Dorsey’s big-band show. All of the pictures Weegee took with his Speed Graphic camera are in high-contrast black-and-white, like scenes from Orson Welles’s Touch of Evil.

He snapped his mesmerizing photographs in a sweaty frenzy between seventy and eighty years ago. There are two haughty dowagers accosted by a shabbily dressed drunk woman at the opening of the Metropolitan Opera; children sleeping on a fire escape in a slum; a man arrested for cross-dressing grinning and baring his thigh in the back of a paddy wagon; a panoramic mob filling every inch of sand at Coney Island; an anguished mother in a black kerchief staring at the tenement fire in which her daughter and granddaughter are perishing. These familiar images were captured by an immigrant working in the depths of the Depression and wartime for a couple of dollars per newspaper shot. The alchemy of time and evolving taste has transmuted more than a few of them into art.

Weegee was less concerned with art than with fame. “A picture is like a blintz,” he liked to say. “Eat it while it’s hot.” He was so obsessed with celebrity that he proclaimed himself Weegee the Famous when he was no more than a legend in his own mind. When his work and relentless self-promotion finally won him recognition, his photography veered off into idiosyncratic and schlocky tangents. The man whose images were in the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art churned out tits-and-ass shots for a pair of men’s magazines called Hi and Ho!, which were each half the width of a regular magazine—the better to hide in a raincoat.

Self-taught and self-propelled, Weegee has a singular place in the pantheon of street photographers that includes such masters as Brassaï, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Berenice Abbott, Robert Frank, Ruth Orkin, and Diane Arbus. Only Arbus routinely used flash, as Weegee did, to capture her menagerie of odd subjects, and none shot with Weegee’s Speed Graphic press camera. His prints were raw, sometimes overexposed, often repetitious. They have none of the austere serenity of Orkin’s pictures of snowy Central Park from her window or the creepy pathos of Arbus’s portrait of the young giant and his tiny parents in their claustrophobic flat or the finesse of Cartier-Bresson. Instead, Weegee’s punks and grotesque car wrecks…


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