He was an icon in his day — the go-to photographer for 1930s and 1940s New York newspapers, serving up images of murderers, gangsters and their victims.Weegee — his real name was Usher Fellig, a self-taught photographer and poor Austrian immigrant — was announced in news magazines and photo books with his chosen nickname spread largely across the page.
And now his work has been given the full-retrospective treatment in a touring show from NYC’s International Centre of Photography. ‘Weegee: Murder is my Business’ is on display at the Ryerson Image Centre (RIC) until Dec. 13.
The exhibit gathers his best-known images alongside newspapers, magazines, and personal items like his camera and distinctive fedora.
Part businessman, showman, and documentarian, Weegee built a personal legend around his coverage of crime scenes, tenement fires and car crashes.
His photographs are part of a visual culture we associate with the movies, according to Gaëlle Morel, RIC’s curator.
“They remind us of film noir,” Morel said. “The fedoras, big cigars, mafia and gangsters. The images are very cinematographic.”
In the show’s first room are a series of images depicting the photographer himself; many show a conscious attempt at image management — there he is in his apartment across from the police station waiting for the next sound of the sirens; or working out the back of his car full of flash bulb, camera equipment and a typewriter; then standing in front of a dead body amongst a group of policemen.
In magazine articles on display, he is described as a nightcrawler waiting for the next sound of the sirens or call on the police radio. They say he sometimes arrives before the police.
“He is building his own legend,” Morel said. “You have to understand he is coming from a poor family of immigrants.
“Photography is a way of climbing the ladder. He wants to be the name and the person people call when they want a photo of a crime scene. It is a bit cynical but it is a business.”
Yet, the photographs themselves show a great concern for the context of the violence documented, Morel said.
Many of the images show the faces of the crowds of rubberneckers who arrive at the scenes of the crimes. Some show dead bodies lying in the street with curious New Yorkers leaning out their apartment windows to watch the scene.
“Weegee was really interested in … what surrounds the body, turning his camera on the crowds and people on the scene. He had different concerns than the (police’s) crime-scene photographer,” she said.
“The images are very appealing because of the human component, not a very forensic cold aspect,” she said.
Today, photographers who cover crime are often considered vultures, plying their trade on the backs of victims.
“He said himself that murder was his business,” Morel acknowledges, but she said she makes no moral judgment he may have exploited the victims he turned his camera on.
“This is part of what the press wants, this is part of what our culture wants: crime, violence and the not so glamorous scenes of metropolis life in New York,” she said.
According to Morel, Weegee put the truth of the street in front of the public.
“You see the people living in social housing trying to make a living and with violence a
part of the daily routine,” Morel said. “That is what he is showing I think. The children have to live with this and grow up in this context.”
The image in the exhibit that sticks with Morel the most depicts no gore or violence, but instead its aftermath.
Captioned ‘Their First Murder,’ the photo shows school children who’ve just witnessed a horrific gangland shooting. The faces are smiling and one can sense the energy of the moment — the disrupted routine the children embrace. But there is also a woman amongst the crowd who is swooning in grief. The caption tells us she is the aunt of the man just killed.and a bit disturbing.”
“It is very interesting because there is such an energy and dynamic and you have those conflicting emotions,” Morel said.
“Of course, he is using that flash bulb that gives a very strong effect to his images, faces being illuminated,” she said.
“It’s a terrible photograph in a way,” she said. “Very moving and a bit disturbing.”
This article was published in the print edition of The Ryersonian on Nov. 4, 2015.