Saturday, July 4, 2009

Man, hear I go yammering about Weegee again.

Look the man wasn't a genius in terms of IQ points, but Arthur Fellig the photographer-popularly-known-as Weegee paved the way for other low brow photographers like Diane Arbus and Nan Goldin, Cindy Sherman and Nikki Lee. Oh, and punk photography in general. And what I mean by that is he paved the way for low brow photography to be accepted by the grand poo pah of photography: art photography.

Weegee was ugly, poor, and obsessed with the blood and guts of his city. As a photojournalist, he got his hands dirty and wasn't afraid to break the sacred rules of journalism. He'd pose people and rearrange crime scenes for maximum impact. He wrote his own often lengthy captions and was even occasionally given license to write the articles that accompanied his photos in the newspapers he shot for. That was unheard of back then.

I finished up Weegee and Naked City by Lee and Meyer. Its a short book with a few plates but mostly words. The book analyzes the characters and circumstances that paved the way for his only photography book Naked City and his pioneering photo exhibit at the New York Photo League called Murder Is My Business. It's a terrific and easy read with a fresh approach to the man and his work. I was delighted to find out just how self aware he was of what he was doing. He the man himself is imbedded in his photos - sometimes literally - because he WANTED to be famous. He wanted people to know his name and made no qualms about it. A left leaning press was of course going to bring him on as an ally with his everyman appeal. He gave that movement street cred as much as he gave it a visual style. And being no dummy, he used this unique (but earned) respect to further his transparent goals of 1) fame, and 2) legitimacy among the fine art cognicenti. Frakkin' genius.

Weegee may have been opportunistic (how's that a bad thing again?) but he also took complete ownership of his photographs, and I'm not talking about copyrights (who cares?). I mean the man walked the walk and talked the talk. He came from the same mean streets of NY that he shot and is a prime example of the kind of photographers I admire most: those who live their art. Photographs aren't just images - that's a cynical point of view if there ever was one. Photographers are performance artists first and foremost. Self awareness to the point of obsession - 'Look at me looking at you'. We hunt and kill what we eat. Because it's only fair.

And further to the low brow point, he mastered the use of flash like nobody's business. Flash use has always played second fiddle to natural light sources or studio light that mimics natural light. But here's the truth art photography is too precious to embrace: it's HARDER TO MASTER flash. Certainly much more difficult to master than natural diffuse light. Which is secretly why high brow art hates it's use there I said it. I'll even take it a step further and declare flash-lit black and white journalistic/punk/street photography is as American a treasure as jazz or blues or dare she say it? rock and roll.

So hail to you, Weege. You punk.

No comments: