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Photo Essay

'Things Nobody Would See'

Weegee on display: dark artist, first paparazzo, or both?

By Christopher Grabowski 20 Jun 2006 | TheTyee.ca

Christopher Grabowski's photographs and photo-essays have appeared in various European publications as well as the Globe and Mail, The Washington Post, Financial Times, El Mundo, Utne Reader, Neue Zurcher Zeitung, MacLean's, Ottawa Citizen and Geist. He has received several awards in photojournalism. Among them, the Michener-Deacon Fellowship, Canada's premier award encouraging the pursuit of investigative journalism that serves the public interest.

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Tenement Fire, Harlem, 1942. Collection of Alan and Ellen Newberg.

Born Usher Fellig in Galicia in Eastern Europe, Weegee was ten when his family emigrated to the Lower East Side of Manhattan in 1909. At the age of 14 he was living on his own. For the next 10 years he held a succession of menial jobs, and for the following dozen years, he worked in a darkroom and as a photographer for ACME Photo, which later became United Press International. At 36 he started a freelance career that catapulted him to the photography world's Hall of Fame.

"Weegee's photos are, for the most part, as direct as a baseball bat to the knees." Author Allene Talmey's description of Weegee's photography indicates a certain degree of discomfort inflicted on the viewer. This may have been closer to the truth in the decade between 1936 and 1947 when Weegee produced most of his significant photographs. Today, Weegee's pictures of dead Italian mobsters and transvestites arrested by solemn, uniformed officers have lost most of their shock value, revealing their real depth as social documentary.

The harsh, graphic style that has become Weegee's signature was determined in good part by the technique available: a Speed Graphic sheet film camera, a flash bulb and a portable photo lab in the trunk of his Chevy. Night, when he was shooting, provided the black background for his subjects. With one, perhaps two frames possible to take at the scene, he became a master of the decisive moment.

Father of tabloid photos

Weegee's works were exhibited in the Museum of Modern Art as early as 1945, but his photography also induced a healthy dose of criticism and even outrage. He has been called a parasite, a voyeur and an ambulance chaser. He has even been credited with conceiving tabloid photography.

Weegee was an early chronicler of the spectacle of American culture as well as a legitimate player in it. Eventually, it consumed him. In the words of photographer Peter Marshall: "Weegee became the Hollywood stereotype of the photographer. He went to Hollywood and never recovered, producing some self-consciously arty work which is often painful to look at."

Before that happened, in his best decade, Weegee, perhaps unconsciously, often produced images that opened new avenues in the genre of social documentary photography. His influence can be traced to the works of photographers like Robert Frank, Lisette Model and Diane Arbus.

Early in her career, Diane Arbus spent time organizing Weegee's archives. She once pointed to the balancing aspect of camera-enhanced voyeurism: "It's very subtle and a little embarrassing for me, but I really believe that there are things that nobody would see unless I photographed them."

Weegee's New York -- images from the collection of Weegee's niece Ellen Newberg and her husband, Allan, run until June 24th at the Simon Fraser University Gallery.

Christopher Grabowski is a regular contributor of words and photographs to The Tyee.  [Tyee]

Read more: Photo Essays

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