“Hollywood is Newark, New Jersey with palm trees.” So said crime photographer and full-time self promoter Arther Fellig, who was also known as Weegee. He was New Yorker to the the core, having grown up in the bitter poverty of the Depression-era Lower East Side after moving from Eastern Europe. He photographed murders, car crashes, and criminals, hundreds of them, virtually inventing the sensationalist tabloid aesthetic, and the no-hold-barred style of photojournalism.
But Weegee's time in Hollywood is the subject of the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles' recently opened exhibit, Naked Hollywood: Weegee in Los Angeles and Sunday's lecture Weegee East and West, led by curator Richard Meyer, which explored the photographer known for stalking the Big Apple's streets at night, as he set out for Hollywood to subject the city to his camera's ever watchful eye.
Meyer spoke with Colin Westerbeck, an art historian who studies Weegee, and Brian Wallis, the chief curator of New York's International Center for Photography, home of the extensive collection of the photographers' archives, containing 20,000 images, negatives, and even Weegee's ashes. The conversation aimed to shed light on Weegee's lesser-known work in Hollywood, in which he lampooned Hollywood elite with trick lenses and photomontages that turned starlets into grotesque gargoyles.
“Weegee linked these distortions to a medium that was tied to the truth,” Wallis said, “and he linked the distortions to the distortion of celebrity itself, in which the celebrities distorted reality with acting, the look of their bodies and their personas.” Marilyn Monroe's face, her biological logo, is twisted like a Francis Bacon painting, or a funhouse mirror under Weegee's mischievous manipulations. Lucile Ball becomes a Coney Island caricaturist's bad day. Slaughtering sacred cows was his business, and in Hollywood the abattoir was full.
Weegee became a photographer later in life, after spending years as a darkroom tech, honing the skills to process and manipulate images. Then with a Speed Graphic camera in hand, he illuminated New York's seedy underbelly with his Westinghouse flashbulb. He lived across the street from a police station in a $17-a-month apartment, above a shop that sold cop uniforms, revolvers and bullets. In the basement was a shooting range, the sound of gunfire never ceased. He had a darkroom in the trunk of his car, and a police scanner that would broadcast crimes as they happened, providing the prototypical paparazzo the ability to show up at a murder scene before the cops. His intuition, driven by tipsters and that piece of police technology, earned him his name, a phonetic bastardization of Oujia board.
Weegee was in love with everything cinematic, from his carefully framing of his subjects — and occasional staging of a scene with mannequins — to the blinding wash of his flashbulb, the same way stage lights set a scene aglow. Following the success of his 1945 gritty crime book Naked City, Weegee was enlisted by directors to help on films, and he shot behind-the-scenes footage for Stanley Kubrick and provided his photo-manipulation effects to films' dream sequences and montages. Weegee sold the film rights of Naked City for $3,000, which made him rich (at least for an artist) and famous.
Hollywood suited Weegee, who had a tenuous relationship with the truth. As a New York photog, he doctored photos, adding bodies, creating more blood with ink, and entirely fabricated scenes; the subject of a Weegee photo sometimes was completely false. “Photos were illustrations of a news article, for Weegee, not a representation of the truth,” Wallis said. The New York Times wouldn't take his work, but the tabloids loved his broadly brushed take on truth. So did the art world, who showcased his street photography in the Museum of Modern Art.
In Los Angeles, he continued the wanton disregard for the truth, even entitling his most formally impressive image of a golden painted stripper as backstage in Hollywood. She was actually in Denver, but to Weegee it didn't matter, as far as movies could travel, the idea of Hollywood could be anywhere. “Weegee had no investment in the truth,” Mayer said, “Denver could be L.A., ink could be blood.”
Today, in the age of Photoshop and an entire populace armed with ubiquitous camera phones, we have all become Weegees, snatching up pieces of the world, one photograph at a time. Our personal reality is what we chose to show, a long narrative that we want to tell in the seemingly endless social media loop disseminated on Facebook, Tumblr and more. Twitter is an unfiltered stream of images from the Arab Spring, a live feed of tragedy and revolution. We live in a world made by Weegee, where photos are symbols and the whole story, illustrating a reality fed through the aperture of 140 characters or less. Weegee would be at home here. “He would have loved working for US Weekly or TMZ” Mayer told me in an interview on Sunday. “Weegee would love the 'They're Just Like Us' section, he'd love to see Demi Moore pumping her own gas.”