November 2011

Gimlet Eye

Like so many refugees from New York, famed tabloid photographer Weegee came to Hollywood in search of new vistas  by GREG CERIO

  • <i>The Gold Painted Stripper</i>
  • <i>Wardrobe Dept.</i>
  • <i>Liz</i>

One of the lessons gleaned, perhaps, from Naked Hollywood: Weegee in Los Angeles, an exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art from November 13 through February 27, is this: Never underestimate the importance of a good blintz.

This is the first survey of the photographer’s oeuvre on the West Coast—part of the Pacific Standard Time cooperative arts initiative in Southern California that runs through April. Included are some 200 images, most never intended as museum fare and thus shown with crop marks and marginalia, as well as samplings of his work as author and filmmaker.

Weegee, who garnered renown in New York City based on his simultaneously blunt and sly black-and-white depictions of crime scenes, grisly fare and wry street tableaux, arrived in L.A. in 1947 in high spirits. “Now I could really photograph the subjects I liked,” he said at the time. “I was free.”

Richard Meyer, curator of the show and an associate professor of art history and fine arts at the University of Southern California, interprets that remark to mean Weegee “was tired of gruesome deaths, tears and ambulance sirens. I think his real interest was in taking pictures of stars and burlesque performers—that is, sexy women—as well as new sorts of crowds and a different kind of street life.”

Yet Weegee would come to vilify Los Angeles, and he expressed his disdain in very specific terms: “The restaurants in Hollywood were simply awful. I judge a restaurant by their blintzes. I had eaten better blintzes—free—at the Salvation Army dinner on Christmas.

Of course, since the natives [of L.A.] are zombies, there were no restrooms in the Hollywood restaurants—they drink formaldehyde instead of coffee and have no sex organs. In Hollywood, you can always recognize the out-of-towners...they carry their chamber pots with them.”

It’s surprising in many ways that Weegee would come to loathe Hollywood—a town where self-promotion is the coin of the realm—as he was nothing if not a towering self promoter, even imprinting the backs of his photos with a rubber stamp bearing the words Credit Photo by Weegee the Famous. Still, as the quintessential self-made man, he had a right to be proud.

Born Usher Fellig in 1899 in an eastern province of Austria, his first name was changed to Arthur when his family immigrated to New York in 1910. In his early teens, after quitting school to help support his family, he became a tintype photographer and, later, assistant to a commercial photographer.

In 1921, he found a job in the darkroom at the New York Times, then within two years, he landed work with another photo company, where, among other duties, he served as news photographer. This was the turning point.

Fellig chose to go freelance in 1935. He haunted the halls of Manhattan police headquarters, and his crime-scene images began to appear in the numerous New York newspapers of the day. He was granted special permission to have a police scanner installed in his car and even built a darkroom in its trunk for speedy photo processing.

The scanner often allowed him to beat the cops themselves to a crime scene, and that alacrity earned him the nom de lens Weegee—presumably a play on the name of the future-prediction game Ouija, though sources differ on the coinage. In 1943, five of Weegee’s images were presented in a show at the Museum of Modern Art, and soon he published two books, Naked City (1945) and Weegee’s People (1946).

At about this point, Meyer suspects, Weegee began to grow weary of crime reportage and be drawn toward the siren call of Hollywood. He had dabbled in motion pictures and had started a series of photographs he called “distortions,” in which he used special lenses and techniques to warp his subject.

In one example, a series of Marilyn Monroe images begins with a standard cheesecake shot, but by the third picture the actress has an elongated face, giving her a sort of piggy nose, and in the last her face seems to be collapsed and sucked in upon itself. “The ‘distortions’ have sometimes been seen as an embarrassment on aesthetic grounds, a gimmicky form of trick photography,” says Meyer, “but they were a fascinating part of Weegee’s creative response to—and revenge on—Hollywood, his caustic take on what he called the Land of the Zombies.”

As embittered by the rejection of his distortions as Weegee must have been, he continued to ply his trade in L.A., making more short films (most now lost), playing small parts in films and contributing to magazines that offered both technical advice on photography and skin pics. Stanley Kubrick hired him as set photographer for Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. Meyer believes an audio interview between Weegee and Peter Sellers suggests the actor based his accent for the role of Strangelove on the lensman’s own.

At the same time, of course, Weegee continued to be Weegee. “He said a photographer needs to think life happens in context,” says Meyer. “There’s a background, and you need to walk around a subject. Some of his best shots are not of celebrities but of fans, shot from behind. You see them standing on post boxes, garbage cans and lampposts, anything they can find to catch a better view. The pictures show us both the lure of celebrity and its gritty reality. The fans standing on Hollywood Boulevard—for Weegee, that was the best show in town.”

Image 1: Getty Images
Image 2-4: Weegee / International Center of Photography / Getty Images