Weegee´s World:
Life, Death and the Human Drama

21. April 1999 to 6. June 1999

Weegee's World: Life, Death and the Human Drama

Weegee (Arthur Fellig) has long been acknowledged as one of the most important press photographers in the history of the medium. His bold, graphic, and instantly legible style, and gritty, disturbing subjects have influenced every generation of photographers subsequent to his. The professional who perfected tabloid news photography was also an absttract photographer, an experimental filmmaker, at poet of the streets and a talented writer. 

Weegee was born in Austria and arrived in New York in 1910, as part of a wave of immigrants flooding into the city's Lower East Side. From various parttime jobs, he found his way to a position in the darkrooms of Acme Newspictures, which was later absorbed by United Press International. After several years as a technician, he began filling in during emergencies when other staff photographers were unavailable. He developed a remarkable intimacy with the people and places featured in the fast-breaking news stories he covered, and went on to sell his photographs to many of the numerous daily newspapers published in New York between 1936 and 1945. His uncanny instinct for knowing where those stories would occur led to his adopting the name "Weegee", a phonetic spelling derived from the ouija board, whose powers of divination he seemed to share. 

The Weegee Archive and Collection is the definitive repository of the photographer's work. The Archive and Collection came to ICP in 1993, as the bequest of Wilma Wilcox, the photographer's companion for fifteen years. It includes: more than 12,000 prints which were in Weegee's possession at the time of his death; 6,500 original negatives; prints of his experimental films; correspondence; manuscripts; technical documentation; and other unpublished materials. 

Weegee's World: Life, Death and the Human Drama included more than 200 original images by the photographer, and organized thematically, incorporated several of the major categories which appeared throughout his career. 

The Exhibition grouped related categories, such as City Services (including Police, Fire and Accidents, Rescue; Life in the City (the Bowery, Coney Island, Harlem, Greenwich Village) and Entertainment (Personalities, Movies, Theaters, and Bars). 

Some of Weegee's subjects were unique to him, while others were among the most typical and topical of the day. Both types are important in understanding his work, for his originality lay both in what he did that was new and how he reinterpreted and reinvigorated standard and established pictorial types with his sophisticated compositions and unflinching vision. The exhibition also revealed Weegee's process of self-fashioning, in which he created a persona out of the raw materials of the city he portrayed and the pictures he made of it. Weegee's World was the most comprehensive and ambitious exhibition of the photographer's work to date. Its scale, and the wealth of resources in the Weegee Archive at ICP provided the rare opportunity to survey his career as a whole. 

The exhibition was about New York, about the media, about the multiplicity of photography as a medium, about an individual's creation of his own identity through photographic practice, and about the public sphere and the behaviour of individuals in a major metropolis. One of the most important and timely aspects of Weegee's work is its situation at the intersection of mass-media and fine-art photography during the period when those aspects of the medium diverged most radically in the wake of earlier twentieth century modernism's experiments. 

At a time when purist fine art photographers like Ansel Adams and Edward Weston began to command respect and to demand a separation of fine art and commercial work, Weegee harked back to an earlier chapter in the history of modernism. Weegee found no conflict between his attention-getting crime photos for the masses and his artistic or sociologoical studies. 

Today, as photographers struggle to redefine and renegotiate the role of photography in a post-modern world of imagesaturation and infinite reproducibility, Weegee is an essential figure to reconsider.