Weegee, an apolitical paparazzi and ambulance-and-cop-chasing cameramen, hardly belonged to the most high-brow camp of photographers. He claimed his nickname came from showing up at crime scenes before police, with Ouija-board clairvoyance. (In reality, Weegee’s nickname came from a boyhood job as a photo lab squeegee boy and his prescience from a police scanner in his car.) Despite his seemingly low-brow subject matter, in 1943 MoMA exhibited Weegee’s work in a show curated by consumate art photographer, curator, and aesthete Edward Steichen.
The International Center of Photography is probing Weegee’s conflicted allegiances to fine art and the lurid in Weegee: Murder is My Business. It displays photos taken in New York from 1935 to ‘46, as he worked for Life Magazine and freelanced for newspapers. The photographs hint at the genre-bending fluidity that made Weegee dear to yellow journalists and art lovers alike, with works falling somewhere between rag mag photography and Diane Arbus. The subjects range from the curious to the gruesome, with photos of a cross-dresser arrested for assault and attempted robbery, nine children sleeping on a fire escape with a cat, and numerous snapshots of murdered corpses. Weegee often turns the camera around at murder scenes, inspecting the leering faces of perversely interested crowds. He was deeply concerned with the human element of the drama of New York’s streets. By not merely contenting himself with shocking the viewer, he rises above flat tabloid work.
Weegee lived nocturnally for his work, dwelling across the street from NYPD headquarters to get a jump on stories. ICP recreated his room, complete with a steel-frame bed, ancient bottle of roach remover, typewriter, radio, full ash tray, and a number of original tabloids pasted on a wall. ICP also hosts an interactive website for exploring Weegee’s photos by location, genre and subject.