Weegee, the founding father of contemporary American crime photojournalism, gets a close-up at I.C.P.

'Murder Is My Business' is on display at I.C.P. (International Center for Photography)
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Brian Sholis

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In one particular photo at the exhibition Weegee: Murder Is My Business (at the International Center for Photography through Sept. 2), one can see all that made the pioneering photojournalist an institution in Depression-era New York.

Taken at the scene of a murder, the photo shows a woman swooning in the midst of a crowd of children. The kids, just out from school, lend the picture its title, Their First Murder. The woman, who is the victim’s aunt, gives it a fulcrum around which the children’s nervous energy surges. This is Weegee at his best, providing a hard-boiled chronicle of city life and death, while also managing to elevate such human drama to the level of lasting art. It was a trick the famed photographer rarely let people forget he possessed.

The Weegee that’s surveyed in this entertaining exhibit is not only the man, an immigrant born Usher Fellig in Austria, but also the myth, who described himself as both “Weegee the Famous” and the “official photographer of Murder Inc.”

Curator Brian Wallis has crafted a show that demonstrates how and why Weegee became one of the best-known photojournalists in New York City from the mid-'30s through the '40s. Operating out of a sparse room across the street from police headquarters, he made nightly forays into the streets in search of breaking news. He nearly always found it, returning with pictures of lifeless bodies sprawled out on sidewalks and the inquisitive bystanders and pained relatives who had witnessed the crimes.

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These images were fed to a hungry press. When he took up a camera around 1935, New York City was home to at least a dozen daily papers, several of them in the then-new, smaller, picture-fronted tabloid format. Weegee sold his dramatic shots to any willing buyer, among them the editors of the New York Post, and in the process become one of the first freelance photojournalists.

As his fame grew, Weegee became a regular contributor to PM, a liberal daily launched in June 1940, and the working relationship allowed him to expand his reportage from individual shots to photo essays, through which he could present several sides of a story. This work was itself useful training in the sequencing necessary to put together his first book, Naked City, an unsparing yet loving 1945 look about the city. It was dedicated “To You / The People of New York.”

The city was roiling during the decade this exhibition covers. Prohibition had been repealed in December 1933, and at roughly the same time J. Edgar Hoover and his G-Men began a serious crackdown on organized crime. Despite Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia’s success at bringing in New Deal money for work projects, New York, like other big cities, suffered terribly during the Depression, and things really didn’t start to turn around unti America entered World War II in December, 1941.

The surging war economy brought tens of thousands of black migrants to the city from the south, exacerbating racial tensions and leading to newspaper-fueled crime scares. (It was during this time that the term “mugging” came into wide use.) Weegee trekked all around Harlem to cover the riots there in August 1943.

In the exhibition, one finds not only Weegee’s black-and-white prints, but also newspaper pages, photographs taken by official police photographers, and work by Weegee’s colleagues and competitors. Smartly designed and informative touch screens weave audio recordings and video footage into the galleries, and Wallis and his colleagues have re-created both Weegee’s one-room hovel and an exhibition he staged in 1941 at the Photo League’s East Side gallery. The juxtaposition of this material underscores how his pictures traveled across mediums—from negative to print to newspaper to magazine to gallery wall. (Weegee was even included in group shows at the Museum of Modern Art.) In contrast to the other, more pedestrian images, we discover how effectively Weegee’s seemingly artless shots encapsulate human drama.

One of the most complex images in the show, titled Line-Up For Night Court, depicts criminals being led to a paddy wagon for their appearance at night court. The man at the head of this parade, wearing a long jacket and with his arms held out awkwardly, is the center of a busy scene. Weegee’s shot captures not only his dejected expression, but also the silvery flash of handcuffs, the open paddy wagon door, another photographer snapping away, and, hovering above it all, police inspectors staring out from windows covered in protective bars. It’s a striking tableau of crime and punishment in action.

As the exhibition makes clear, Weegee styled himself a major actor in Depression-era New York. Wallis makes reference to Weegee’s “constant process of self-fashioning and self-representation”; his PM spreads were headlined “Weegee Covers….” The curators’ ability to re-create his rented room and earlier exhibitions stems from his meticulous documentation of his own life—there are approximately 1,500 self-portraits in the Weegee archive. One of the more famous on view here depicts the photographer sprawled on the floor of a paddy wagon, camera in hand, ready to surprise with a flashbulb the next person shoved inside.

Weegee’s police-issued press pass allowed him to enter into any taped-off crime scene in the city, and his willingness to press unnervingly close to victims was one part of his pictures’ appeal to photo editors—as the saying goes, “if it bleeds, it leads.” But his willingness to swivel around and catch onlookers, too, his recognition that life, however interrupted or damaged, goes on in the face of death, ensures that these documents remain compelling long since they’ve ceased to be news.