Here's a riddle from the art world: Who was part huckster, part experimental trailblazer and part social commentator, lampooning society's adoration of celebrity, but longing to be one at the same time? Warhol, you say? No, turns out it's Weegee, the cigar chomping photographer — aka Arthur Fellig — who fled New York in 1946, where he made his reputation as a chronicler of the night, of crime scenes and the spectators who gathered to watch, to turn his sights on Hollywood.
Claiming he was "through with the newspaper game," after selling the title of his book of New York photographs called "The Naked City" to a producer who turned it into a movie, he was drawn to Hollywood. But, as the sweeping show currently up at MOCA proves, Weegee was a lot more complicated than we thought.
As a photojournalist, I have covered my share of news. Like Weegee, I love shooting at night and I am fascinated by what happens behind the scenes of major events and celebrations. I love to turn around and focus on the crowd, the fans, the workers, to get behind the artifice of fame and fortune.
But Weegee did it first, in a raw and powerful way. There was nothing elegant about his images, like those of Cartier Bresson. There was little poetry, lots of grit.
When I think of Weegee, the iconic New York photos come to mind: the two society matrons, dressed to the nines, walking out of their limousine, oblivious to the sad gaze of a woman dressed in tatters ("You could smell the smugness," he said); the distraught witnesses to a nighttime neighborhood fire; the photographer himself, cigar firmly clenched in his teeth, showing off a portable darkroom in the trunk of his car which made it easy to live up to his name, thought to come from the Ouija board since he touted his ability to predict where a crime would occur, and be first on the scene.
But the MOCA show reveals Weegee's many layers and contradictions.
As a social commentator, he was ahead of his time. He had a clear agenda and an attitude when it came to Hollywood. He wanted to skewer the celebrities who enjoyed so much fame for what he thought was nothing more than being famous. Weegee caught the hoi polloi eating, drinking and unaware--years before TMZ tapped into the public's insatiable appetite for celebrities caught in the act of being human. He invented plastic lenses that could be squeezed and squished to manipulate the image, creating what he called "photo caricatures" to make the stars look like they came straight out of the funhouse or to distort and exaggerate their features. Jackie Kennedy, the Duke and Duchess of Windsor and Lucille Ball were among his subjects and he nailed them perfectly.
But Weegee had a special axe to grind in mocking the Hollywood elite: "When Debbie and Eddie occupied more newspaper space on their wedding day than the international situation, my plastic lens cut them down to size," he is quoted as saying.
At the same time, he reveled in his own celebrity. The show is full of images of the photographer himself. Self-portraits in which he becomes part of an elaborate Hollywood tableau--in shops looking almost like a mannequin (which also were some of his favorite subjects), his face among many masks in a costume shop, driving a car with mannequins as his passengers or in movie stills from his career as an extra in Hollywood crime movies. Curiously, none of the myriad photos documenting Weegee's hijinks is credited to anyone other than "unknown photographer."
Who is that photographer in the window?
He was brilliant at self-promotion, starting with his copyright stamped on the back of his photos: "Weegee the Famous," and cannily proven with a series of cardboard counter displays, wrappers for Westinghouse flashbulbs, available by mail order, touting "Weegee's Secrets of Shooting with Photoflash." For only 25 cents, you could order a booklet and learn "How to take flash photos of pets...children...parties" and all Weegee's secrets would be revealed.
Weegee was much more than a one trick pony. He was also an avant-garde artist of still and moving images, manipulating negatives, sandwiching them, repeating portions to create op-art patterns. Some are interesting, some gimmicky, some crude. But some of his street scenes of Los Angeles are beautiful and I love the humor and irony in many of his photos.
One of my favorite parts of the show is his early movie, from 1948, called "Weegee's New York." Made with mirrors and trick lenses I found it a poetic homage to the city, shot in black and white but with touches of vibrant color and out-of-focus images of skyscrapers and traffic. It is mesmerizing, and its artistry surprised me. I spent a long time watching and trying to figure out how he did it.
I also learned that he was hired by Stanley Kubrick to shoot stills and consult on "Dr. Strangelove or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb." According to Weegee, Kubrick, himself a photographer, hated the technique of using available light which became possible when cameras and developers improved and film like Tri-x enabled photographers to make pictures without flash in low light situations. Kubrick wanted the crude flash photography that Weegee was famous for to document his film. While none of those stills is on display, don't miss the opportunity to listen to an interview done with Weegee for the BBC by Peter Sellers.
Sellers, all upper class British and soft spoken, can barely get a word in as Weegee tells story after story about himself and his escapades--while also paying homage to Cartier Bresson, Ernst Haas, Gene Smith and Karsh. "Let me tell one more story and then I'll let you ask me a question," he says, begging Sellers to continue and "turn the tape over" as he sensed the interview was drawing to a close.
Sellers, himself a formidably talented actor, wit and writer, behaved like MOCA's museum-goers might, in Weegee's thrall following the path of his odd, fascinating and sometimes groundbreaking career. Unable to resist this force of nature, Sellers kept quiet and went happily, or helplessly, along for the ride.
Photos: Weegee/International Center of Photography/Getty Images