Saturday, March 5, 2011

The mad faces of Weegee

I used to have a book of Weegee photos. Alas, I lent it out and the book was never returned. (I could have a burning resentment against the person who didn't return it. However, I have two books on my shelves that I failed to return so I can't cast any stones. Too bad; I like casting stones.) Weegee is a sort of stage name. The man's actual name was Arthur Fellig, and he was a photographer and photojournalist in the early to middle of the last century. I don't think many people remember his real name, but Weegee will never be forgotten.

I don't know much about the man but I'll share what I do. Most importantly, he seemed to stay up all night. The man chased mayhem -- ambulances, police cars, fire engines, whatever -- and attended all the latest fights. Weegee's magic trick was that he pointed his camera not at the object of everyone's attention but at the people who were watching: the fight, the murder, the dead body, the accident, the crash, the explosion, etc. In a movie theater, his shots were of the audience. At a fire, same thing -- he would point his lens at the horrified onlookers. As a result, he captured the most bizarre, intimate photographs. And the photographs are of us

Weegee showed us as aliens, as wild, possessed creatures barely constrained by the customs of a civilized society. The mad expressions on some of the faces in his photographs are clearly out of control. And there is a joy in those faces -- a joy at seeing the horror. They like it.

The realization that hits us as we view his photos is that these are pictures of us. The weird images are merely the result of Weegee holding up a mirror. And we recognize this, we recognize us. That is the shock of a Weegee photo -- the moment when we see ourselves without a mask. There is a peephole element to Weegee photos; we feel we're seeing something we're not supposed to. The worlds Weegee captured are secret. And the secrets are ours.

A wonderful artist, Weegee left behind startling images not only of a lost time, but a lost people. Most of the subjects in his photos are gone from the world today. (The photos range from the 1930s to the early 1960s.) This large separation in time, and the consequent impression that we're seeing an ancient world, adds to the allure of the images. 

We can't touch this distant past, can't walk through the night of a Weegee photo. Yet he left us windows through which we can peer into that time. The view remains haunting today and there is a stark message in these photos for latter-day viewers -- we have not changed. These remain photographs of us.