Weegee the Famous never considered his work art. But with an eye that would focus on anything and a mind that meshed perfectly with the exploitative newspaper ploys of his era Weegee photographed New York as it has never been photographed since.
From 1935 to 1947 he roamed the metropolis - mostly by night - and documented tenement moviegoers, and Bowery bar antics - pictures that were then rushed into the waiting hands of the tabloid editors who would deposit his art on the door-steps of the city the next morning.
Weegee (born Arthur Fellig in Austria in 1899, he changed his name to Weegee the Famous in the early 1940s) was the classic stereotype of the press photographer: an inveterate cigar smoker wit a big camera, pushing his way to the front of police lines, grabbing his shot and then dashing off to make a deadline. This was a living certainly, a way of life perhaps, but to him, surely not an existence as an artist.
If he epitomized an aspect of photography, it was the absolute triumph of content over form: no fancy lenses, no artsy angles; he was a master of the simple, direct photographic assault.
Yet in retrospect, there was an underlying art to Weegee's vision, whether he saw it or not. Nine years after his death the International Center of Photography in New York has mounted a torrid, in conjunction with the publication of Louis Stettner's "Weegee" by Knopf.
There is a starkness throughout the images: a bleeding face framed within the window of a car pushed beyond the brink; the tires and partial chassis of two cars impinging on a body as a police flashlight blurts into the frame; a bruised criminal being held by police as his mug shot is taken, again with the police camera intruding partially into the frame; a live pig roped to a table at a hoity-toity party: a row of top-hatted dandies heading into the Metropolitan Opera.
There was never any ambivalence in Weegee's vision. He always aimed his 4-by-5 Speed Graphic camera dead-on, and fired GE press 40 flashbulbs that seared the flesh tones right out of faces and turned into ghostly appartitions of the beyond. His pictures are strictly black and white; little gray entered the frame, perhaps because he had little gray in his world view, and surely because he knew that grays don't reproduce well in newspapers, his forum.
He was, above all, a man of unbounded curiosity, who knew that newspaper readers were just as curious as he was. Consequently he didn't turn his lens away from the most graphic examples of death, decadence, poverty and misery. He went after the pure emotional experience of every situation, and rarely let the camera put any distance between subject and viewer. If he was a voyeur (as in his photos of lovers on beaches and in moviehouses, surreptitiously shot with invisible infrared flash), he was even pure in this voyeurism: It was not the image that concerned him; it was the people in the frame. He did not inhabit the world of art; in fact, he never outgrew the slum world of his Lower East Side upbringing.
"When Weegee began his nocturnal wanderings, he had never heard of Steiglitz or the Museum of Modern Art." Bruce Downs wrote in an introduction to Weegee's in 1961 autobiography. "He functioned as a free agent uninhibited by any preconceived notions as to what (in the opinion of critics and photographers) constituted fine photography. Of any knowledge of art he was completely innocent."
It was this innocence that allowed Weegee to zero in so precisely on the essence of New York. Had he been obsessed with clever camera angles and natural lighting he never would have been able to plunge into his subjects so immediately. The police radio mounted in his 37 Chevy, enabled him to arrive at crime and accident scenes before most of the police. And he would fire away, never changing exposure gathering up every detail he could see through the finder of his camera.
While Weegee's photos sold millions of tabloids in his day, his style of photography has virtually disappeared for contemporary newspapers. Perhaps because of the growing awareness of photography as an art, front pages now are filled with spaciously composed and delicately printed images that would be more at home in a permanent museum collection than a disposable chronicle of the last 24 hours. There are telephoto close-ups and wide-angle panoramas - rarely anything that resembles the head on normal focal length shots of Weegee that closely approximate the field of view of the ordinary human eye. And today small 35mm cameras have completely replaced the larger 4-by-5 format that gave Weegee's photographs such remarkable detail.
But more has changed than equipment. Today few of us are inclined to confront the termenting vision of urban life he presented, a vision carried on in the bizzare subjects of Diane Arbus, a New York photographer whose style was being formed while Weegee's shots still appeared in P.M. and other papers. The result was that the daily work of this hack social documentarian focused the imagery of one of America's most celebrated photographic artists.