Was legendary NYC crime photographer Arthur Fellig–better (only?) known simply as Weegee–a self-promoting hustler who exploited murder and mayhem to further his considerable ambitions? Was he a sharp-eyed street photographer whose perceptive portraits of the urban underbelly would influence the likes of such acclaimed artists as Diane Arbus and Robert Frank? Was Weegee just an action junkie? A cop groupie? A trafficker in sensationalistic sleaze for the NYC tabloids of the 1930s, looking to make a buck? The answer, as the fabulous exhibition Weegee: Murder Is My Business, just opened at the International Center of Photography, makes clear: all of the above.
For Weegee: Murder Is My Business, ICP NYC dipped into its enormous Weegee archives (according to the New York Times, in 1993 ICP was bequeathed some 16,000 Weegee prints and 7,000 negatives by the photographer's long-time companion Wilma Wilcox), and offers up a smartly-curated, hugely entertaining retrospective of Arthur Felig's most intense and productive years, from 1934 to 1945. At the beginning of that decade, Weegee photography was pretty much straight-up ambulance-chasing, albeit with a knack for arriving at the scenes of the crimes (and some nights there were many) before tabloid competitors, and often, even, before the police. It quickly became apparent, however, that Weegee also had a special genius for capturing not just the incident itself–the bloody body, the smashed-up car–but also the surrounding scene: the jaded cops and excited gawkers; the tenements and bars and street corners of a New York City long gone. And it is this almost instinctive eye for composition (call it intimacy within context), that make so many of Weegee's earliest photographs so fascinating.
As he became more confident as a street photographer, Weegee expanded his beat beyond the nightly shootings and stabbings of the slums, and many of our favorite shots in the ICP's Weegee: Murder Is My Business exhibition don't, in fact, involve gangsters lying dead on the ground. Weegee's vibrant series on Coney Island, for example, featuring stolen kisses and squeezes, lost children, and a jaw-droppingly huge July beach-day crowd, show Weegee's core street photography skills hard at work: endless patience, an almost intuitive recognition of that moment when the world in front of you becomes a photograph, and an unhesitating reflex to capture it when the shot finally appears. There's also an unusually large amount of unusually interesting complementary material at the Weegee: Murder Is My Business show, including installation shots of Weegee's hand-lettered boards/frames he used for his 1941 Photo League exhibit (seriously: these look like a lurid high school science fair project); original copies of newspapers and magazines featuring Weegee's photos; and even a full-sized recreation of the man's flophouse-ish room. For someone who nicknamed himself "Weegee the Famous," he sure wasn't concerned with appearances around the home.
Weegee: Murder Is My Business at the ICP details
Weegee: Murder Is My Business will be on exhibit at the International Center of Photography through September 2, 2012. ICP NYC is located on Sixth Avenue (aka Avenue of the Americas) and 43rd Street, and is open on Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday and Sunday from 10:00 a.m. until 6:00, and on Friday until 8:00 p.m. Closed Monday. For more information about the International Center of Photography and the Weegee exhibition, please see the ICP website, here.