‘Weegee’: capturing the dark side of New York City

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If you are drawn to the bad old days of New York City — the nighttime underworld scene captured so vividly in such great films as “Sweet Smell of Success” and “Taxi Driver” — you will love the exhibit on view at the International Center of Photography in Manhattan through September.

“Weegee: Murder is My Business” is a huge display of the photojournalism and experimental work of Arthur Fellig (1899-1968) who worked under the name “Weegee’ from the 1930s through the 1960s.

Fellig took his pseudonym from the ouija board — spelling it out in an easier to pronounce form — because of his knack for arriving on scenes just after someone had been killed in an accident, or murdered.

Weegee’s work appeared in just about every New York daily of the period except for The New York Times. The crime shots on view at the ICP are still shockingly graphic due to the unvarnished view of the dead and the expressions on the faces of those who turned up at the scene of the crime.

It seems unlikely that Weegee crime pictures would be used in today’s cautious, prim journalistic environment (Weegee would no doubt have been horrified by the largely sanitized photojournalist coverage of the greatest tragedy in the history of his city — 9/11).

As the exhibit at the ICP makes clear, Weegee was also a pioneer of marketing his work outside the confines of daily journalism. He was the subject of many photo shows during his lifetime and published several popular collections of his work including the 1945 bestseller “Naked City.”

Weegee’s love of the city inspired lots of non-crime work, including a few beautiful avant garde color films (on view at the ICP), made with distorting lenses, that pre-dated such acclaimed Andy Warhol movie experiments as “Empire” (the artist’s notorious eight-hour static shot of the Empire State Building).

The history component of the show is vast. I could have spent many more hours studying the street scene shots — capturing long-vanished buildings and ways of life.

There are also a few incredible pictures of Coney Island in the pre-airconditioning era where the beaches are so crowded with standing throngs posing for the camera that you can’t imagine how they could ever sit down to relax.

The show fills the entire lower floor of the ICP and is so packed with terrific displays that I know I will be returning a few times before the end of summer.

As I walked through the museum, I could almost hear that immortal line Burt Lancaster (as newspaper columnist J.J. Hunsecker) delivers about halfway through “Sweet Smell of Success” — “I love this dirty town!”

Joe Meyers

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  1. Joe in CT says:

    Weegee was Pop before Pop had a name. I gotta see this show too, Joe.