Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Weegee: Murder Is My Business @ICP

JTF (just the facts): A total of 116 photographs by Weegee (along with 6 additional photographs by other photographers and a handful of wall sized enlargements), framed in black and matted, and hung against light brown walls in a series of 4 connecting rooms on the lower level of the museum. All of the Weegee works on view are gelatin silver prints, taken between 1935-1946. No dimension or edition information was provided for any of the prints. The exhibit was curated by Brian Wallis. Since photography is unfortunately not allowed in the ICP galleries, the images for this show come via the ICP website. (Photographs by Weegee, top to bottom at right.)
The exhibit is divided into four sections. The details of each section are as follows:

Photo Detective: Weegee and the Art of Self Invention
15 photographs
1 glass case (camera/bulbs, press card, hat, 2 magazine spreads)
Bedroom recreation
1 interactive screen

Read All About It! Weegee and the Tabloid Press
43 photographs
1 glass case (5 images in newspapers, 3 in magazine spreads)
1 case (crime scene log book)
1 interactive screen

Documentary Truth: Weegee and the Photo League
21 photographs
6 photographs by other photographers (1936-1948, Aaron Siskind, Vivian Cherry, Sandra Weiner, Helen Levitt, Lee Sievan, Arnold Eagle)
1 glass case (exhibition comment book)
Photo League exhibit recreation
1 interactive screen

Naked City: Weegee and Urban Disorder
37 photographs
1 video (Weegee's New York: New York Fantasy, 1948)
1 glass case (13 spreads from PM, 1940-1944)
1 glass case (6 copies of Naked City open to spreads matching prints above)
1 video (Coney Island, 1948)
1 interactive screen

Comments/Context: As you come down the stairs toward the first gallery of the new Weegee show at the ICP, you are greeted by a massive papier-mache revolver (recreating one his famous self portraits looming down over a gun shop) and foot high letters shouting the show's lurid title Murder Is My Business. These details announce that this exhibit is going to be full of high drama production values mixed with a film noir sense of hard-boiled roughness, and it certainly does deliver on that score. But as I circled the rooms of this excellent exhibit, I started to read the title with a slightly different cadence and emphasis. Say those same words in a deadpan monotone, as a statement of fact (like I Am An Accountant), with a sense that Weegee took his subject matter (murder) seriously and practiced his craft with relentlessness and care, and suddenly some of the over-the-top huckster bravado falls away, leaving behind a photographer who was undeniably very, very good at his chosen vocation.

While the meticulous recreation of Weegee's bedroom (police scanner on the bedside table etc.) and his exhibits at the Photo League (complete with red nail polish applied to the photographs to enhance their bloodiness) are visually exciting and break up the normal monotony of a normal photography exhibit, the real core of this exhibit comes in the second room, where Weegee's early flash-lit images for the tabloid press are shown with scholarly clarity. Instead of a parade of individual greatest hits, a smaller number of rightly famous images are selected and then surrounded by Weegee's other photographs of that same scene, often creating a cluster of 3 or 4 pictures of the same accident or perp walk. These groups prove that Weegee wasn't a fly-by paparazzi, snapping haphazardly. While any particular incident might be anchored by a bloody corpse or sheet covered body, Weegee took the time to orient his compositions looking for contextual stories. His pictures are never just the gangster or the criminal; they are always broader, rounder compositions including bystanders, gawkers, police officers, anguished relatives, other photographers, and other random passersby and local architecture, sometimes in multiple overlapping layers of foreground and background. He had an eye for witty irony, and black humor, and gritty, unexpected truth, and his pictures are almost always the story of a reaction, a gesture, a juxtaposition, or a movement that accompanies the central action. A movie marquee, an overturned white hat, a thick rooftop edge, onlookers craning out of upstairs windows, the bold sign for a bar and grill, they all provide context for the dingy repeated drama of death and disfigurement. It is clear from this series of pictures that Weegee understood that it wasn't enough to simply document the facts, but that every picture needed a visual hook to get run, and his approach to any given event was to search for that hook.

The other rooms in the exhibit surround this central "murder" core, providing evidence of Weegee's tireless self-promotion and of his work to expand his photographic subject matter to include many more facets of New York life. The first room is all self-portraits (with a bomb, with a pile of loot, out of a paddy wagon) and we get a refrain of self-portraits later in the exhibit (with his typewriter in the back of a car), as if we hadn't had enough of Weegee's fascination with his own persona. After the seemingly endless parade of corpses (and there is a particularly good one of a sheet covered body still holding a shorn off steering wheel), we see Weegee turn his camera to ice covered firemen, a trampling incident, tenement living, top hats covering faces, cars submerged in the river, Bowery entertainers, and even Santa being inflated for the Macy's parade and the endless crowds of the Coney Island beaches in summertime. In just a few short years, he went from the murder beat to covering the entire city, and his back to back shows at the Photo League were further proof that he was beginning to be recognized by his peers in the fine art world as something much more than a cigar chomping, nocturnal parasite.

My walk-away conclusion from this show is that Weegee really does get better and better the more you look at his work. This show brims with electric violence and nervous anxiety, and does an exemplary job of making a museum show interactive and fun, but what really got my attention (and what will stay with me long into the future) was the consistent cleverness of Weegee's compositional vision.

Collector's POV: This is a museum show, so of course, there are no posted prices. Since Weegee was so prolific, dozens of his photographs are routinely available at auction in any given year. Recent secondary market prices have ranged between roughly $1000 and $48000, with the vast majority available for under $5000.
Rating: *** (three stars) EXCELLENT (rating system described here)

Transit Hub:
  • Features/Reviews: NY Times (here), Lens (here), Hyperallergic (here), ARTINFO (here), Artdaily (here), Photo Booth (here), Capital New York (here), NPR Picture Show (here)
Weegee: Murder Is My Business
Through September 2nd

1133 Avenue of the Americas
New York, NY 10036

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