- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 28, 2001

NORFOLK — Weegee's "naked city" of 1930s and 1940s New York was raw and dangerous, yet also tender and charming, a place where bodies sprawled on sidewalks after gangland shootings but also where couples wearing 3-D glasses kissed in cinemas.
His crisp black-and-white news photographs of such varying scenes of urban life — often accompanied by quirky titles and captions — made him world-famous.
More than 200 vintage Weegee prints are on display at the Chrysler Museum of Art in Norfolk, the first of only two American venues that will show the photos, owned by European collector Hendrik A. Berinson.
"These were made to be published in tabloid newspapers, but they hold up as works of art for museums," says Brooks Johnson, curator of photography at the Chrysler. "He paid a lot of attention to composition. He was so aware of what was going on around him, the juxtaposition of subjects."
"Weegee's Story" will be at the Chrysler through Oct. 28, then travel to the Philadelphia Art Alliance.
The exhibition was organized by the Rupertinum Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art in Salzburg, Austria. At the show's European stops, the photographs often were hung on plain white walls with little or no caption information.
The Chrysler's version is set up with a flair for the dramatic. The gallery entrance has been transformed into a dark Depression-era street with a fireplug, a street lamp and crumpled newspapers strewn about. Behind yellow police tape, the outline of a body is marked in chalk on a sidewalk.
With the mood thus set, visitors move from there to several rooms filled with pictures that are tragic, comic, weird and disturbing.
Poor children sleep on a fire escape to beat the summer heat. Throngs of Coney Island sunbathers wave and smile in Weegee's direction. Nattily dressed men in a paddy wagon hide their faces behind top hats. A poor woman eyes bejeweled operagoers with disdain. Children mug for the camera as they gather to view "Their First Murder."
An entire wall contains photos of murder scenes, from a decapitated head to the body of an off-duty police officer who was shot in front of a funeral chapel with a casket propped up in the doorway.
"Now the easiest kind of a job to cover was a murder," Weegee once said, "because the stiff would be laying on the ground. He couldn't get up and walk away or get temperamental."
The Chrysler exhibition also includes the captions Weegee tapped out on the manual typewriter he kept in his car trunk, which was outfitted as a portable darkroom.
Some captions find humor in situations that normally would not be funny.
Weegee took the title of a 1937 photo of a fire at American Kitchen Products from a sign across the center of the building: "Simply Add Boiling Water."
"The sign … refers to the frankfurters, not the firemen,"he wrote.
Other captions express heartbreak.
A 1939 photo called "I Cried When I Took This Picture" shows two women with anguished expressions on their faces. The caption explains: "Mrs. Henrietta Torres and her daughter Ada cry and look up hopelessly as another daughter and grandson were burned to death in the top floor of the tenement house."
Weegee (1899-1968) was born Usher Fellig in Zloczow, Austria, in what is now Lviv, Ukraine. The family came to the United States when he was a boy, and his first name was changed to Arthur by immigration officers at Ellis Island.
He grew up poor in Manhattan's Lower East Side. He dropped out of school at 14 and began assisting a commercial photographer. After several years, he bought a secondhand camera and rented a pony to set up his own portrait business.
Moving out of his home when he was 18, he often slept on park benches and in train stations or, when he had the money, in flophouse rooms that cost a quarter a night.
In his 20s, he began working for Acme Newspictures, which supplied photos to New York's Daily News and hundreds of other newspapers nationwide. Tired of not being credited for his pictures, he set up his own business as a free-lance photographer in 1935.
He would get up at 7 p.m., head to the Manhattan police station and go through the crime reports.
His professional moniker was a phonetic play on the Ouija board, for his seemingly uncanny knack of being where the action was — no doubt aided by the fact that in 1938 he was permitted to install a police radio in his car.
Weegee's intuitive, "random-hit" style was innovative at a time when many photographers followed a more classical, technical approach, says Michelle Tillander, a photography teacher and chairwoman of the visual arts department for the Governor's School for the Arts for gifted high school students at Old Dominion and Norfolk State universities.
"His whole approach is more of a kind of street shooter, pretty quick," Miss Tillander says. "He put an edge on it."
In 1945, Weegee published a book of photographs, "Naked City," which inspired the classic film-noir movie of the same name.
While acting as a consultant to that film, he moved to Hollywood. He continued to work into the 1960s, often photographing celebrities, but those pictures were self-consciously arty and didn't measure up to his earlier street scenes, Mr. Johnson says.
"For him, the city is a theater," Mr. Johnson says. "He had an affinity for all these down-and-out people."


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