Weegee: The Original Nightcrawler
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Weegee: The Original Nightcrawler

Murder was his business and business was brisk

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In the 2014 film Nightcrawler, a seasoned news director tells newbie freelance videographer Louis Bloom, “Think of our newscast as a screaming woman running down the street with her throat cut.” As grisly as it sounds, this is the essence of tabloid journalism, and no one was better at it than Weegee, the self-promoting New York City freelance photographer who practically invented the genre.

Prowling Gotham City after sunset with a bulky Speed Graphic camera, Weegee−the acquired name of Austrian-born, self-taught photojournalist Usher Fellig−possessed an uncanny ability for being in the right place at the right time. From a murder victim felled by a .38 to the temple sprawled on the sidewalk to charred remains hauled from a tenement gutted by fire, during the ’30s and ’40s, Weegee’s images defined an era.

As this handsomely curated exhibit at Ryerson Image Centre reveals, Weegee did more than simply train his lens on carnage. The cigar-chomping photographer had a knack for juxtaposing the raucous, carnival-like atmosphere of slum dwellers gawking at a crime scene with the static presence of the deceased, or the sombre countenance of investigating police. With the sheer volume of original works on display, our voyeuristic desire to witness other people’s tragedies is starkly evident.

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If gore isn’t your thing, the exhibit still has a lot to offer. Several copies of Weegee’s book Naked City are artfully displayed, along with original editions of newspapers where his images first appeared. The installation includes a section on The Photo League, the influential collective of politically engaged photographers intent on portraying the harsh realities of New York City’s ethnic neighbourhoods of which Weegee was a member.

The exhibition also has a sample of Weegee’s foray into cinematography. New York Fantasy is a semi-abstract short film depicting a day in the life of New York City, circa 1948. Accompanied by a Leonard Bernstein-esque score, the off-kilter, out-of-focus and at times, accelerated film concludes with the bizarre image of a person being launched out of a cannon.

The grammatically odd phase, “A million people on the beach of a Sunday afternoon, is normal” appears a frame into Coney Island. The 13-minute film captures Brooklynites of all shapes, sizes, ages, and ethnicities clad in bathing suits hamming it up for the camera to a soundtrack of popular songs of the day.

Weegee: Murder Is My Business is on view at the Ryerson Image Centre from October 14 through December 13, 2015.