Friday, September 14, 2007


by Jesse Lerner and David Serlin

Weegee (Usher Fellig) is best known for his dystopic urban photographs, principally those images made in New York as a free-lance photojournalist in the years prior to the end of the Second World War. But these photographs represent only a portion of his work, a vast corpus which includes satirical city symphonies like Hollywood: Land of the Zombies, his "collaborations with Picasso," which fragment the maestro into a demented cubist portrait of distorted shards, an obsessive series of clowns, and hundreds of images of chimpanzees acting out a myriad of anthropomorphic scenarios. After the War and the publication of Naked City (1945), Weegee moved away from photojournalism and became increasingly involved in both filmmaking and the use of specialized distortion lenses. With the run-away success of his book, and the rights to the title sold to Hollywood studio, Weegee left New York in 1947 for Los Angeles, a trip which marked a curious turning point in his life. In the critical literature, the evolution away from the street photography most closely associated with his lowbrow modernist aesthetic has been denigrated. Focusing on this latter work, and as a preliminary and tentative step toward a much-needed larger reappraisal of Weegee's life's work, we propose that his films and photography must be understood as meditations on the hyperbolic physical body, fed ultimately by two main influences: iconography of mass urban culture (Coney Island, the dime museums, etc.) and icons emanating from Yiddish culture, including newspapers, political cartoons, and theater.
That Weegee's later work in film and with distortions is marginalized, dismissed, and often critically maligned reflects a larger scholarly misapprehension of his art. If his street photography could be awkwardly incorporated within the canons of modernism as a kind of intuitive primitivism ("a primitive with a camera, like Grandma Moses," as he mockingly describes himself in his autobiography ), his filmmaking efforts fit much less comfortably, and more often found a home as part of special effects sequences in Hollywood films (on which he frequently consulted) than they did in the art museum. For Weegee, motion picture photography was an area for sui generis experimentation:

I'm patenting the Color Box. It's an amazing slide machine that creates colors and designs . . . this machine throws these colors onto the nude or seminude bodies of my girl models, and I photograph the results with a movie or still camera.

Much of this experimentation was poorly received or ignored. The Aperture series entitled "Masters of Photography", aiming to define the canonical compendium of photography as Art, includes a volume on Weegee which restricts itself, perhaps not surprisingly, to his street photography at the expense of these experiments and distortions, leaving out all of the three-breasted women and multiplying toilets. Photographer and critic Louis Stettner writes in his introduction to a monograph on Weegee:

One cannot pour over the vast numbers of kaleidoscopic and distorted nudes without realizing that Weegee was working out his sexual fantasies through photography. While some of them have genuine artistic merit, lending insight into the male concept of female sexuality, the rest of these photographs were of purely therapeutic value to Weegee himself.

Reading through the impoverished critical literature on Weegee, it is apparent that he has been ill-served and misunderstood by the academics and critics. Based on the working-class subject matter, he is lumped together with dissimilar, goyish artists: "Weegee was an abrasive, even abusive, realist in the style made public by Thomas Hart Benton, Paul Cadmus and Margaret Bourke-White." Weegee is consistently deracinated, disconnected from his immigrant Jewish roots in the shtetl and on the Lower East Side, though it is from there that so much of his sensibility originates.


In his comparative study of Polish, Jewish, and Irish
constructions of nationalism at the turn of the 20th century, Special Sorrows, Matthew Frye Jacobson describes how Jews attempted to define the boundaries of a national Jewish culture. For many, Jewish nationalism was often articulated through the celebration of Yiddish types, and, especially in the Yiddish language press, debates on the relative merits of an increasing trend toward "cosmopolitanism." According to Jacobson, the virtues of cosmopolitanism were discussed at length by Jewish religious leaders, secular nationalists, and nomadic intellectuals alike. For some, this term was not a compliment of urbane sophistication, but an insult directed at those who chose to absorb the lifestyle of the assimilated city dweller and eschew the religious integrity and cultural separatism of the immigrant enclave. But for many artists, cosmopolitanism was also a sophisticated method of reconfiguring shtetl archetypes and subject matter within the dense urban milieu, so that nostalgic visions of traditional ghetto life were renewed. In the best spirit of Sholom Aleichem, the familiar topsy turvy world depicted by the shtetl was even further dramatized and exaggerated by the material artifacts of urban life streets and sidewalks, crowds, electric trains, and the heterogeneous tendencies of popular culture. Thus, cosmopolitanism relocates subjectivity from the ethnic enclaves and ghettoes of Eastern Europe to the streets of New York City, transforming the whole island of Manhattan into one megashtetl of village types, exaggerated expressions, and social disparities, themes of which constantly recur in Yiddish literature and iconography of the period.
If the European basis of Modernism, especially in the visual arts, captivated the imaginations of American artists excited by these new challenges to representational art, then can we then think of Jewish--or vulgar--Modernism as an ethnic construction of Modernism? The historical specificity of racial and ethnic identity and community often obscures the institutional and canonical construction of high Modernism. Was it not the accepted stereotypes of Jewish immigrants earthy, hirsute, swarthy, passionate that fomented the associations between Eastern European Jewish artists and a certain kind of vulgar Modernism, which contrasted with the high German and French Modernist contributions to painting, sculpture, illustration, or photography?
For many critics, Jewish Modernism gets folded within the
traditions of social realist (or, in many cases, explicitly proletarian) arts, as in the case of fiction by Michael Gold, Tillie Olsen, or Henry Roth. For these writers, descriptions of immigrant experience follows the aesthetic dictates of what was then called the lyrical Left, the cultural vanguard of the Communist Party USA and other official organs of radical groups. This was an attempt to create an accessible, highly democratic aesthetic tradition that would ideally supplant the classical (and classist) tendencies of high Modernism. This alternative Modernism also included Ash Can painters like Robert Henri and John Sloan, or W.P.A. artists like Ben Shahn. Publications such as the New Masses relied heavily on the iconography of urban chaos and repression bloated capitalists in top hats punishing striking workers or huddling urban masses depicted as refined in order to critique economic and social injustices and to promote political mobilization among its readership. For Jewish artists, this vision of Modernism emerges from these early associations in the formalism of immigrant artists like Jacob Epstein, Abraham Walkowitz, Adolph Gottlieb, Mark Rothko, Louis Lozowick, and others.
In this context, Weegee's work can be understood as a organic, class-conscious expression of the immigrant working-class milieu that parallels proletarian contemporaries, though without the sense of moral outrage that appears in Meyer Levin (Weegee was too cynical for that), and without the utopian aspirations of a Party member. Much of Weeegee's humor about how the powerlesss can find a way to express his contempt for the powerful. He recalls in his autobiography: "For toilet paper, we kids tore up Hearst's Journal." His photographs often express contempt for the swells, their affectations, their carryings on and their triumphant skyscrapers. Mayor LaGuardia is framed to look if he is picking his nose, and Joe McWilliams, "professional anti-Semite and Nazi lover," is paired with the rear end of a horse. "Don't make any mistake," Weegee's caption advices us, "that's handsome Joe at the top of the photo." Through these compositions, distortions, and captions, Weegee extracts has the last laugh at the expense of the wealthy and the powerful, to wipe his ass on the bloated rich, as it were.
Weegee's relationship to the street was very different from that of contemporaries who also chronicled the meaner streets of New York. Reginald Marsh, a blueblood, chose proletarian subjects in the belief that "well bred people are no fun to paint." In contrast, Weegee came from the streets, and his aesthetic was always that of the tabloid, the Coney Island funhouse, and the comics. Where the uptowners looked to the street as a source of proletarian vitality, Weegee had this sensibility within him. And if Stieglitz typifies the Modernist aesthete, then Weegee is the consummate vulgar Modernist. Weegee's nontheatrical short film Camera Magic, made for Castle Films, a demonstration of photographic and cinematographic tricks, embodies the carnivalesque sensibility of this lowbrow aesthetic. Many of the techniques in the film echo Vertov's Man with a Movie Camera or surrealist photomontage; optical printing stops and reverses the motion of a horserace, and another sequence demonstrates "the girl who lost her head," a bizarre decapitation worthy of the most misogynist dadaist. But these techniques are not employed here as part of a revolutionary political program, but rather as tricks for the "camera buff" or the "amateur". Significantly, Weegee's photographic practice is frequently linked to amateurs and hobbyists. The 1957 documentary The Naked Eye, seeks to justify his proclivity for trick lenses by telling the viewers: "an amateur at heart, Weegee, like other amateurs, delights in casing the camera stores for new equipment." But what does "amateur" mean here, if Weegee was clearly someone who depended on his cameras for his livelihood? Recent scholarship has reevaluated the importance of amateur film practice, placing it in a central position in the the origins of cinema and the histories of the American avant-garde.

Trauma and pain are inherent in Yiddish literary and iconographic typology, and this, explains Weegee's fascination or at least recurring preoccupation with themes of suffering, torture, shock, and physical humiliation. Among other things, this would suggest ways of understanding the volk aspects of Weegee's subject matter, in which class is either explicitly critiqued ("The Critic", "Metropolitan Opera House", etc.) or implicitly embedded ("The Bowery", "The Vegetable Peddler", "Bagels on Second Ave"). Sander Gilman's study of the Jewish body and its connotations in Europe of disease, depravity, decay, vampirism is one side of this equation. But this assumes that such racial typology only emanates from dominant discourses that socially construct ethnicity and the body, and that Jews did not produce either complicit or alternative versions of their own typology. When we see the kinds of anthropometric or phrenological studies, anthropometric and early medical photographs done throughout the ninteenth century by anthropologists, eugenicists, and criminologists (per Sekula) we must also ask how visual artists from within these communities represented themselves. What, for example, did caricatures of Jews looks like when produced by Jewish artists or through means of mass production as would have been accessible in large metropolitan areas?
The specificity of photography perfectly captures the aesthetic and political tensions that lie between group identification and self representation. Photography is a mass cultural art that relies on notions of technological authenticity (the objectivity of the camera). But what is different about Weegee's exploitation of identifiably ethnic images is that his photographs are not merely about objectification, but rather about self definition. For example, why not use the camera, as Weegee did, to reproduce multiple images of certain ethnic or racial types a Litvakian, a Chelmian, a Galitzian?
Weegee projected the sensuality of the physical body onto the modern cityscape, which are perpetually linked by an implicit relationship between immigrant experience and physical expression. In Weegee's work, we see a convergence of European hyperrealism (in the tradition of Zola or Dostoyevsky) with a kind of vulgar Modernism influenced by the Ash Can School artists, European Dadaism, mass advertisements, and the visual culture the Coney Island and Bowery: side shows, burlesque theaters, and dime museums. Weegee's nascent Modernist aesthetic conceives of city life as naturalistically archetypal. Indeed, we see in Weegee's photographs the repetition of camera angles that focus on certain body parts, certain poses, and certain contortions of the body that noticeably perform somatic variations on ethnic identity or social experience. The best of Weegee's work shows how the social fabric of public space is intimately intertwined with the physical performance of embarrassment and vulnerability.
Characteristic of Weegee's city is a profusion of human bodies in close proximity to each other, and in such corpulent abundance as to suggest a compulsive fascination. This motif is a recurring one in Weegee's films, photographs and writings. The Coney Island sequence of Weegee's New York, with its telephoto shots of oversized butts and bellies bursting out of scanty swimsuits, evoke an immigrant's sense of wonder at the excesses of the American body. Likewise Weegee's fascination with nudist camps and his fixation--most apparent in Naked Hollywood--on asses and on cleavage (the breasts of Marilyn and Zsa Zsa, dubbed by Weegee their "spheres of influence")--reflects both a prurient interest and a good measure of anxiety. To view Weegee's films and photographs is to gaze upon this country's physical surplus made manifest in the flesh, to ogle its size, nakedness, and its overflowing bounty, like a new-arrival strolling down Fourteenth Street on a summer day. "Wardrobe Department" shows a display window of a store whose specialty, "Extra Large Panties," is announced across three mammoth-sized samples. This profusion is multiplied and exaggerated even further in Weegee's distortions, which expand the muscular, shirtless chest of the "villain" to aberrant proportions in Naked Hollywood, add beards and remove torsos from the goyish models in swimsuits who populate Camera Magic. Over and over again, Weegee's aesthetic is dominated by caricature, exaggeration, and hyperbole.
The luscious desirability of these healthy American bodies acts as counterpoint to Weegee's own body, a recurring figure in both his photographs and his remarkable autobiography, Weegee by Weegee. A recent Hollywood film modeled on Weegee's life, The Public Eye, suggestively illustrates how the presence of his Jewish body offends the clientele at a high class nightclub. The waiter apologizes: "He's a poet who recently escaped Mr. Hitler." The miffed client retorts: "It's still no excuse, is it?" Posing next to Tony Curtis in a photograph from his Hollywood years, Weegee's distended paunch obscures most of the movie star's trim body, while Curtis' date towers a full head taller than the squat photographer.
For Yiddish playwrights and visual artists, the hallmarks of Modernism, if not the streamlined forms of the Impressionists, or the fractured distortions of the Dadaists, are the use of subjectivity to grapple with issues of representation directly stemming from questions of national interest. One thinks of, for example, the photomontage experiments of John Heartfield or Hannah Hoch, although nothing in Weegee is as overtly political.
Weegee's wry bawdiness and irreverent appreciation for the human body must emanate, in part, from the commercial (and admittedly secular) delights that exploited the naivete and pocket money of Eastern European immigrants. The delights of mass culture from the carnival rides at Coney Island to the dime museums and freak shows of the Bowery provided a visual playground of widely divergent reference points. Dime museums, with their assortment of stuffed animals and anthropological curiosities, also contained dioramas of male and female bodies wrecked by venereal disease and the seething desires of the flesh. Between these museums and the flophouses, saloons, brothels, and bawdy houses that littered the thoroughfares of New York City in the early 20th century (and which constantly reappear in Weegee's autobiography), the material evidence of male and female sexuality defined an environment in which physicality became itself like a tangible object to be displayed, bartered, and possessed.
Weegee's formal (and, one might argue, formalistic) education by the streets, whorehouses, and mass cultural bombardment of New York City during the early decades of the 20th century was mediated by his immigrant heritage and his Jewish identity. This came not only from the life of immigrant children fraught with discoveries and horrors, as they must have been but also from Jewish cultural forms (newspaper, cartoons, etc.) that brought visual imagery into the home and which circulated throughout the neighborhood. At the level of visual impact, the products of mass culture paralleled certain iconographic images familiarized in the Yiddishe newspapers and magazines of the period. Yiddish periodicals inflected exaggerated approaches to the body often the direct influence of American culture on the psyche of the shtetl through street scenes and caricatures. Yiddish language newspapers like Grosse Kundes, which ran from 1909 until 1927, regularly featured comics and political cartoons in which Jewish archetypes made transitions in language and communication familiar to newly arrived immigrants. The fact that these archetypes what Jacobson calls national types found their way into ethnic language newspapers is not so surprising; what is most remarkable is that the visual culture of immigrants is so unexplored and undertheorized, not only by historians of Jewish culture but by scholars of print culture and visual documentation. If they did not directly emulate, say, the more sober Modernist work of the Educational Alliance and uptown artists, then they reflected the overwhelming influence of mass cultural forms on communities separated by language and faith.
While Weegee moved from job to low paying job, his father quit working and fulfilled his desire to become a rabbi. The Talmudic scholar eschews the American dream of fame and wealth for internal, private, non quantifiable intellectual rewards. In this regard, Weegee's self conscious appellation of "Weegee the Famous" seems paradoxical, both a comment on his unyielding desire for recognition and his tendency toward irony and self ridicule, a situation not unlike that suffered by Al Jolson's character in The Jazz Singer (1928). In fact, Weegee's stint in Hollywood involved more than simply photographing the stars and consulting on studio productions. He hoped to parlay his new-found celebrity status into movie stardom, though he never landed roles more significant than cameos and bit parts. He appeared in films including The Set-Up (1949), Journey into Light (1951), Skid Row (1951), Every Girl Should Get Married (1948) and Joseph Losey's remake of M (1951). With a Warholian flare for self-promotion, Weegee obscured the pain with a smoke-screen of self-deprecation, buffoonery, and bravado.
In this context, photography becomes one of the principal forms for the cosmopolitan artist to render national types of Jewish identity and physical examples of the Jewish body while making use of modern technology and the infinite reproductive capacities of mass culture. This is the flip side of reform/philanthropic photography (Evans, Riis, Hine, Lange), in that it assumes and even celebrates the vicissitudes of human suffering, which one might argue is central to a Yiddishe phenomenology of the spirit. Yet, aesthetically speaking, Weegee's work has more in common with Hine and Riis for precisely this reason. His views of urban life were comprised emphatically of the literal, the colloquial, and pedestrian, not the studied pretense of Alfred Steiglitz's architectural impressions or the cool objectivity of Andreas Feininger's urban landscapes. To reclaim themes of violence, suffering and anger in post diasporic Jewish art is to revise Adorno's pronouncement about the impossibility of art after the Holocaust, and demonstrate how pain and trauma played a significant force in the creative and political work of Jewish artists and intellectuals.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

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