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Drama is also created by the reactions of onlookers. In one photo of a crash victim, Weegee catches a stout housewife behind the corpse, laughing into the camera’s lens. A closer look shows that she is not looking at the body — she is looking at Weegee and, by extension, at us. One wonders, seeing this, at what point Weegee became famous enough that bystanders began to recognize the tell-tale fedora and cigar and began to react for him — just as club-goers on the Jersey Shore must have one day realized, when the “Guidos” came to town, that the right shenanigans would land them on the show, their faces blurred. In Weegee’s hands, tabloid photography became a form of reality TV.
“Their First Murder” is justly among Weegee’s most famous shots. It depicts a group of school children reacting to the body in front of them, though outside the frame. A woman swoons, a girl starts forward wide-eyed and a young boy’s face lights up with joy as the group swirls and surges as though in a playground race. But where Weegee gives us the crowd’s reactions, the news gives us him. The accompanying headline reads “Death in Brooklyn: Weegee Scores Another Scoop.” Celebrity, as is often the case, trumps murder.
This turning of documentation into participation was one of Weegee’s signature achievements. His self-presentation as hard-boiled detective photographer is reflected in the 1,500 portraits he took of himself, posing with bodies, with bombs, standing in for the criminal in a police procedural, playing a violin next to a pile of confiscated “loot.” He wrote first-person accounts for PM Magazine with titles like, “Weegee Passes Up Movie for Holdup Alarm, by Weegee.” The ICP exhibit includes a meticulous re-creation of the photographer’s bedroom across the street from police headquarters. The original museum’s contents were carefully curated by its occupant, with a rotating exhibit of newspaper tear sheets adorning the wall at the head of his bed.
The exhibit also re-creates, in part, Weegee’s original 1941 exhibit, also called “Murder Is My Business.” Cardstock backing holds crookedly mounted photos and cut-out letters, along with paper guns decoupaged and smeared in red paint. A white sheet is mounted on one square of black paper, where letters (and someone has put every s backward) read, “This space reserved for the latest murders.” Like Weegee himself, the show was a construct: the backward letters, the mounting job made to look like the bulletin board of a third-grade classroom, the garish red paint that’s been added to bodies and bullets and on the prints themselves (a photo is included of Weegee touching them up with red nail polish), all hit the highs of a noir aesthetic intended to provoke and titillate. It makes you want to watch.
There is a kind of pride at work here, a smugness in Weegee’s gaze. He offers no compassion for the victims, who are just props in the theater of death and disaster that is his city at night. Any empathy he has is for the viewers: those smiling, crying rubberneckers and lookers-on. In showing us people watching, Weegee forgives his own act of voyeurism in revealing and forgiving our own desire to look. The exhibit may focus on, though it doesn’t exaggerate, the more shocking aspects of his art — those bodies with extra gore — but for Weegee, murder was always a bright bit of life, a way of giving the people a thrill. Tabloid photography like Weegee’s brought disaster into the breakfast room. There, we can look, and see ourselves looking, and feel shamed and validated and critical all at once. Or we can glance past it, shrugging, and turn right to the headlines.
Jenny Hendrix is a freelance writer living in Brooklyn.
View a slideshow of photos from ‘Murder Is My Business’: