Google ‘street photography’ and many of the images will be of some place and time in NYC, most of them black & white with some edge of grittiness. Not all of them will be of actual streets, since the term is more correctly used to describe any photography made in public places, such as parks, subways or even shopping malls. But more times than not, they feature people, often candidly, going about their day.
Now Google ‘street photography weegee’ and you’ll not only get photos relating to NYC, but there will inevitably be dead bodies included in the mix.
Weegee, whose real name is Arthur Fellig, was a photographer and photojournalist who popularized flash photography in his method for achieving gritty, high contrast, black and white images. If you were smart enough to purchase the Living Social voucher for the International Center of Photography (ICP), and actually used it, you likely saw the exhibition Weegee: Murder is my Business, which just ended yesterday, September 2nd.
Weegee was dubbed the photographer of Murder Inc. because of his ‘coverage’ of many mafia-related killings during the 1930s and 1940s. In a time when organized crime was at its peak and dead bodies strewn on the sidewalk and rooftop were commonplace, Weegee’s photos portrayed death in a fashion not unlike the way he did life – a candid photo of someone going about their day. Except for these people, their life ended while the day continued on.
While seeing a dead body is something intriguing to many people, what most surprised me about Weegee’s work was how unfazed many bystanders were at the site of a violent death. Kids hanging out the window overlooking a body riddled with bullets, couples posing for their 15 minutes of fame while they stand over a blood stained corpse. Weegee, himself, even said that he took more interest in the living rather than the dead when it came to a documenting a crime scene because of the reaction (or lack thereof) that it evoked in people. What also interested me was his relationship with the police. The level of priority and clearance he was given is something that would never exist today. Because of his close proximity to the police station and his own alarm system, there were times when he would even get to the crime scenes before the cops, and very commonly case the scene and provide to his own conclusion of what happened.
You can find a lot of Weegee’s photos in his book Naked City, though I should warn that some reviews on Amazon claim many of the images from this reproduced work appear to be scanned from the original 1945 version instead of the original images, and that another one Weegee’s New York: Photograpphy 1930-1960 is a better buy because it provides large beautifully printed reproductions on glossy paper. I’m certain, however, that whichever you chose, you’ll get a true depiction of what NYC was really like during the 30s and 40s.