Arthur Fellig, aka Weegee, would have fit in well at the Daily Planet, zooming around Gotham with his camera, snapping black and white photos of those murder victims Superman couldn’t save. Weegee came to prominence during the 1930s, the heydey of The Syndicate and its enforcement arm, Murder Inc. As law enforcement began a crackdown on organized crime, the murder of so-called wiseguys and stool pigeons increased. And so did opportunities for Weegee to capture these bloody murder scenes that would end up being splashed across the pages of the city’s tabloids.
Weegee: Murder Is My Business, a new exhibition at the International Center of Photography, brings together more than 100 original photographs drawn primarily from the museum’s comprehensive archive. In the 1930s, there were more than a dozen newspapers in New York, so Weegee had plenty of editors competing for his work. While he worked closely with the police, often getting to the crime scenes before the law did, he also befriended notorious criminals like Lucky Luciano, Legs Diamond, and Bugsy Siegel. His audience was working class, the men and women riding the subways, unable to resist the lure of Weegee’s graphic photos. “A lot of the crimes were not big city crimes, but those involving small time hoodlums,” said ICP Chief Curator Brian Wallis.
Yet Weegee also focused on those affected by crime—a wife arriving at the police station after her husband had been killed, people looking down from their apartment windows at the murder scene below, or school children seeing death for the first time.
Many of his photos rise to the level of art, particularly those of Depression-era New York, causing many critics to consider him in the same league with such luminaries as Dorothea Lange, Robert Capa, Walker Evans, and Berenice Abbott.
“Weegee has often been dismissed as an aberration or as a naive photographer, but he was in fact one of the most original and enterprising photojournalists of the 1930s and 1940s,” said Wallis. When Life Magazine commissioned Weegee to shoot a series on the process of being booked for a crime, he used himself as the subject. Eventually, the magazine became interested in Weegee as a subject and wrote about this street photographer.
Weegee was a writer, too, penning his autobiography Naked City, published in 1945. He also organized his own exhibitions at the Photo League, a part included in the ICP show. Particularly amusing are comments written by those who went through the exhibit at that time: “Weegee—top man on a solid camera.” Or, “All masterpieces.” And, “You should pull them together for a book.”
Included in the ICP exhibit is a partial reconstruction of Weegee’s private space with his studio and bed. “Downstairs from his apartment was a shop that sold guns and there was a shooting range in the basement,” said Wallis. There are touch screen monitors in each of the exhibit’s four galleries, allowing visitors to further explore Weegee’s legacy.
Black and white photos, from top:
1 Weegee, Line-Up for Night Court, ca. 1941. © Weegee/International Center of Photography. Medium: Gelatin silver print
2 Weegee, Hold up man killed, November 24, 1941. © Weegee/International Center of Photography. Medium: Gelatin silver print
3 Weegee, The dead man’s wife arrived…and then she collapsed, ca. 1940. © Weegee/International Center of Photography. Medium: Gelatin silver print.
4 Weegee, [Hats in a pool room, Mulberry Street, New York], ca. 1943. © Weegee/International Center of Photography. Medium: Gelatin silver print
Weegee: Murder Is My Business
International Center of Photography
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