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Weegee and the Jewish Question

From: Wide Angle
Volume 19, Number 4, October 1997
pp. 95-108 | 10.1353/wan.1997.0021

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Wide Angle 19.4 (1997) 95-108

Figures

Weegee ( Usher Fellig) is best known for his dystopic urban photographs, principally those images made in New York as a free-lance photojournalist in the years prior to the end of World War II. But these photographs represent only a portion of his work, a vast corpus including satirical city symphonies like Hollywood: Land of the Zombies; his "collaborations with Picasso" that fragment the maestro into a demented cubist portrait of distorted shards; an obsessive series of clowns; and hundreds of images of chimpanzees acting out a myriad of anthropomorphic scenarios. After the war and the publication of Naked City (1945), Weegee moved away from photojournalism and became increasingly involved in both filmmaking and the use of specialized distortion lenses. With the run-away success of his book, and the rights to the title sold to a Hollywood studio, Weegee left New York in 1947 for Los Angeles, a trip which marked a curious turning point in his life.

In the critical literature on Weegee, writers have denigrated his evolution away from the street photography most closely associated with his lowbrow modernist aesthetic. Reading through this impoverished literature, it is apparent that he has been ill-served and misunderstood by the academics and critics. Though his street photography could be awkwardly incorporated within the canons of modernism as a kind of intuitive primitivism ("a primitive with a camera, like Grandma Moses," as he mockingly describes himself in his autobiography), his filmmaking efforts fit much less comfortably, and more often found a home as part of special effects sequences in Hollywood films (on which he frequently consulted) than they did in the art museum. For Weegee, motion picture photography was an area for freeform experimentation:

I'm patenting the Color Box. It's an amazing slide machine that creates colors and designs... this machine throws these colors onto the nude or seminude bodies of my girl models, and I photograph the results with a movie or still camera.

That Weegee's later work in film and with distortions is marginalized, dismissed, and often critically maligned reflects a larger scholarly misapprehension of his art. Much of this experimentation was poorly received or ignored. For example, the Aperture series entitled "Masters of Photography," which aimed to define the canonical compendium of photography as Art, includes a volume on Weegee which restricts itself, perhaps not surprisingly, to his street photography at the expense of these experiments and distortions, leaving out all of the three-breasted women and multiplying toilets. Similarly, in his introduction to a monograph on Weegee, photographer and critic Louis Stettner writes:

One cannot pore over the vast numbers of kaleidoscopic and distorted nudes without realizing that Weegee was working out his sexual fantasies through photography. While some of them have genuine artistic merit, lending insight into the male concept of female sexuality, the rest of these photographs were of purely therapeutic value to Weegee himself.

Significantly, Weegee's photographic practice is frequently linked to amateurs and hobbyists. In the 1957 documentary The Naked Eye, a narrator seeks to justify Weegee's proclivity for trick lenses by telling viewers: "[A]n amateur at heart, Weegee, like other amateurs, delights in casing the camera stores for new equipment." Yet Weegee distinguishes himself from the amateur:

I'm no part-time dilettante photographer, unlike the bartenders, shoe salesmen, floorwalkers, plumbers, barbers, grocery clerks and chiropractors whose great hobby is their camera. All their friends rave about what wonderful pictures they take. If they're so good, why don't they take pictures full-time, for a living, and make floorwalking, chiropractics, etc., their hobby? But everyone wants to play it safe. Their afraid to give up their paychecks and their security... they might miss a meal.

In spite of these protestations, Weegee is commonly framed as an amateur made good, and his successes and secrets were commonly celebrated on the pages of magazines for the camera hobbyist. But what does "amateur" mean here, if Weegee was clearly someone who depended on his cameras for his livelihood? Recent scholarship has reevaluated the importance of amateur film practice, placing it in a central position in the origins...


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