Stuff I Love – 1: Weegee

18 Oct

Okay, so I’ve now written a few blogs, and by far the most popular has been the one in which I slagged off Fifty Shades of Grey, and that’s great because, you know, “Yay! Hits!” But when you’ve written something like that, it does leave you feeling as if your total contribution to  humanity can be summed up in one long sneer.

Pictured: The author, circa 2012

So, to balance this out, and fully aware that this will be read by nowhere near as many people as the Fifty Shades blog, I’d like to start an occasional series called “Stuff I Love”, dedicated entirely to, well, stuff I love.

First up: Weegee.

This guy.

Born Usher Fellig in the Galician (now Ukrainian) village of Zlothev, in 1899, Weegee was a news photographer who crossed the line successfully from reportage to art photography, often in a single image. Though many of his most famous photographs were taken for newspapers and magazines, they were never just documentary images. Through subtle framing and observation, many became clever statements and puns, a background billboard or notice acting as ironic commentary on the scene itself.

‘Simply Add Boiling Water’ (1937). See? Subtle.

He earned his nickname from the NYPD, who could never quite understand how he was able to arrive at crime and accident scenes before them, and joked that he must have a Ouija (“Weegee”) Board. In fact, he was actually listening in to police radio, and would go wherever there had been a shooting, a fire, or an arrest.

As a result, his photographs capture moments of drama and violence with an intimacy that had never been seen before. Is his work exploitative? Hell, yes. Did it change the way we witness news events? Without a doubt. The debate as to whether this is a good thing is, I feel, endless. But Weegee didn’t only deliver scenes of carnage and tragedy.

Though admittedly, they were his specialty.

As he became more successful, and was able to indulge his artistic inclinations more and more, Weegee gave us some of the most heartwarming, uplifting, and eye-popping images of the 1930s and ’40s. Take, for instance this very famous photograph of New York’s Coney Island, from July 1940…

If you just said, “Where’s Waldo?” or “Where’s Wally?”, punch yourself.

If that picture doesn’t take your breath away and make you smile, you have no soul. By some estimates, there are about a million people on that beach. A million. This is an America just crawling its way, squinting, into the sunlight after the dark days of the depression. In another 18 months, they’ll be at war. There is something so beautiful about the concentrated fun in this picture.

Over and over again, as if to counter the accusations of cynicism and exploitation, Weegee displays an amazing compassion and warmth in his work, whether it’s for tenement kids trying to sleep in a heatwave…

…the most dapper man in Harlem…

If this guy didn’t have a voice like Morgan Freeman, I’d be bitterly disappointed.

…or a teenage girl at a Frank Sinatra concert:

“Beliebers” eat your hearts out.

Like Spirit creator Will Eisner, Fellig/Weegee was a Jewish immigrant (though Eisner was first generation), whose work developed and matured way beyond its pulpy, commercial origins. Both documented the mid-20th Century uniquely, both tested and expanded the boundaries of their chosen media. In Eisner’s case, the way was paved for comic book artists to go beyond cowboys and superheroes. In Weegee’s, it was for documentary photography to become an artform. And if nothing else, he photographed the world’s least convincing transvestite.

The hairy arms? The tattoos? He’s not even trying, is he?

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2 Responses to “Stuff I Love – 1: Weegee”

  1. BenLikesMusic (@BenLikesMusic) October 18, 2012 at 3:42 pm #

    Dave, thanks for introducing me to this guy. You know how much I loves my photography – will be checking out more of Weegee’s stuff. Thanks

  2. BenLikesMusic (@BenLikesMusic) October 18, 2012 at 3:44 pm #

    And thank heavens you changed your bloody settings; Man, that was an ugly blog you had a week ago. Kisses.

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