The success of the tabloid — epitomized but not monopolized by the besieged citadel of Murdoch — relies, for the most part, on two things: the rhythmic titillation of its headlines, and eye-catching photographs of things not meant to be seen. Writing, it need not be said, is beside the point. Flip through the pages of the Daily News, the New York Post or their down-market cousins, and you encounter a rogue’s gallery of surprised, embarrassed, pained and grotesque faces. Here are transgressive views of not only Lindsay Lohan, Paris Hilton and their ilk, but of the victims, perps and pervs that make up the ranks of the common man.
If these glimpses of our culture are escapist, nihilistic and prurient, they are also morality plays of a kind. Tabloid snaps encourage both shame and the kind of rubbernecking that one was forced to do in person prior to the advent of the tabloid press. The May 17 TMZ headline, “Robert F. Kennedy Jr. Surfaces at Death House,” and its accompanying photo of the bereaved looking shifty and overexposed (in every sense), feeds both the need to gawk at death and the thrilling sense of shame produced by that very act of gawking.
One of the pioneers of this art form — if we choose to call it that — was the photographer known as Weegee, a freelancer for the New York press in the 1930s and ’40s. His innovations are documented in an exhibit at the International Center of Photography, titled “Weegee: Murder Is My Business,” recently expanded and extended through September 2. It features more than 100 photographs and artifacts drawn from the institution’s archive and has been one of ICP’s most popular and well-attended exhibits ever. Apparently, Weegee’s noir sensibility retains its allure.
Arthur Fellig (his nickname derived either from an early job as a “squeegee boy” or from his Ouija board-like ability to be the first man on a crime scene) immigrated to New York from Austria in 1909. He was raised in a Yiddish-speaking household on the Lower East Side, where his father sold hats and worked part time as a rabbi. Weegee’s career coincided with the rise of Murder Inc., the Jewish gang and enforcement arm of the city’s Italian mob. As what he coyly termed “staff photographer” for this group of toughs, Weegee brought an artistic touch to the business of voyeurism and violence.
Susan Sontag once remarked that since its inception, photography has “kept company with death.” Weegee, who claimed to have photographed 5,000 murders, kept death company in person. His photographs, most of them taken at night, are illuminated by flash, whitening the whites of eyes and giving bystanders, cops and victims the exaggerated, roll-eyed look of wildlife caught in the headlights. They are cold, bleak and brutal, but — and here’s the surprise — not strictly rude or crass.
Weegee was a populist, as expressed in photographs of tenements and dance halls and stoops, places where someone could glance up from the funny papers and watch a body hit the ground. He was concerned with the human drama surrounding death — what we might call “human interest” today — and juxtaposed elements in an image to draw out the absurd and incongruous. A gangster is stuffed into a small trunk; behind a newspaper-covered corpse, a movie marquee advertises “The Joy of Living” and “Don’t Let ’Em Loose’”; stenciled on the side of a burning building is “Just Add Boiling Water.”