New York Photo Review
Volume 3 Issue 25 SUMMER ISSUE AUGUST 2012 July 31 to September 4, 2012

Weegee the Famous
Murder is my Business
Booked on suspicion of killing a policeman by Weegee. Source:
Weegee, "Booked on suspicion of killing a policeman" c.1939

Any way you look at it, this show is a killer. With more than 100 original photographs on display, it takes you on a grand tour of Weegee’s world – 1930s and 40s New York with its gangland hits, car crashes, fires, and general mayhem, a lot of the time. Weegee, whose real name was Arthur Fellig, brought it all home to New York’s newspaper and magazine readers, turning tabloid journalism into an art form. As this latest exhibition of Weegee’s work at ICP demonstrates so brilliantly, his pictures were graphic, gritty, dramatic, and intrusive. But so was the photographer in many ways. After all, Weegee literally made a name for himself. Possessing a flair for self-promotion, by 1941 he had enough tear sheets to back up his claim that he was indeed “Weegee the Famous.”

Much to ICP’s credit, this exhibition is about the man as well as his photographs. As an introduction, ICP devotes a corner of a gallery to the partial recreation of Weegee’s one-room studio that was located across the street from police headquarters. We see how he lived and worked– his bed, desk, the police band radio that gave him a head start on his competition, the tear sheets he kept changing above his bed, a check stub from Life magazine for “Two Murders – $35”, a case of flashbulbs and a 4 x5 Speed Graphic. And next to this “apartment” is a series of self-portraits of a tough-looking, cigar-chomping photographer holding a Speed Graphic in various settings. I thought the best one was Weegee lying on the floor of a paddy wagon, camera and flash ready to take the first perp that gets on board.

Installation View by Weegee. Source:
Weegee, "Installation View Photo League Exhibit”

ICP wisely added a multimedia dimension to the exhibition by using four touch screen consoles that display Weegee’s work, along with some actual recordings of his voice. He was the still photographer on the set of “Dr. Strangelove.” A high point is hearing him explain to Peter Sellers, who was said to have adopted Weegee’s New York accent for one of his characters, how he became Weegee.

Weegee called himself the official photographer for Murder Inc., the group of hit men that worked for the Italian crime syndicates operating in New York. He claimed to have covered 5,000 murders, and from the look of all the pictures on the walls, that may have been only a slight exaggeration. Still, Weegee didn’t just see bodies; he also photographed the crowds looking at them. One of his most iconic pictures, ”Their First Murder”, shows a group of spectators – mostly children – at the crime scene, with expressions ranging from joyful to bewildered.

The exhibition’s title “Murder is My Business” comes from Weegee’s two self-curated shows at the Photo League in 1941. In another gallery, we see the actual cardboard display of photos he used for the murder portion, his handwritten title “Murder is my Business,” with smears of “blood” (red nail polish) adding to the realism. ICP also included a few photos from other Photo League members to put Weegee’s work in context. While he embraced the common man ideal of the league, Weegee’s views were more a bit more cynical than say Helen Levitt’s idealized view of childhood.

Another important aspect of Weegee’s career during this ten-year period was the publication of his classic, “Naked City.” Along with some prints, original editions are on display. They include assorted murders but they also feature what is probably his most iconic photograph – “Coney Island,” with thousands of beachgoers packed shoulder-to-shoulder waving at the camera.

This is a complex exhibition that demands your attention and your time. It encompasses an important period in New York City history and certainly a revolutionary time in photojournalism. There are said to be eight million stories in the “Naked City” —- Weegee’s is one worth seeing more than once.

Murder is my Business
Curator: Brian Wallis

International Center of Photography
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Friday, January 20 to
Sunday, September 2, 2012
Hours: Tues - Sun, 10 to 6; Fri to 8