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Freelance photojournalist Weegee (1899-1968) is known for his gritty, sensationalistic photographs of crime scenes in New York City between 1936 and 1947, presented in a style that has since become ubiquitous in tabloid journalism. From October 14 through December 13, the exhibition Weegee: Murder Is My Business will travel to the Ryerson Image Centre in Toronto from New York’s International Center of Photography, which is the home of the Weegee Archive.
According to the press release, the exhibition “looks at the urban violence and mayhem that was the focus of Weegee’s early work.” He lived across the street from a police station and would hear of new crimes through his police-band radio receiver, often heading to the scene even before the police. With liberal use of flash, he “illuminat[ed] crime scenes and tragedies with garish artificial light. This new approach produced lurid high-contrast pictures.”
With his popularity rising, Weegee worked closely with the police, but was also said to have befriended members of Murder Inc.—a gang that served as hitmen for The Syndicate, a web of mostly Italian crime bosses—earning himself the nickname of the group's official photographer. He organized his own exhibitions and was published in a variety of New York newspapers, calling himself “Weegee the Famous” and declaring with pride that he had covered 5,000 murders.
Says Brian Wallis, exhibition curator, “Weegee has often been dismissed as an aberration or as a naïve photographer, but he was in fact one of the most original and enterprising photojournalists of the 1930s and ‘40s. His best photographs combine wit, daring, and surprisingly original points of view… He favored unabashedly low-culture or tabloid subjects and approaches, but his Depression-era New York photographs need to be considered seriously…”
Weegee can now be recognized as an innovator in photography, documentary, and journalism at once. He shows the gore that everyone wants to see but won’t admit to craving. He sees what everyone is afraid to look at. An exhibition section text sums it up: “Weegee’s intimate voyeurism and shrugging acceptance of life’s hard knocks constitute a unique approach to documentary photography, one divorced from the reformist zeal of the US 1930s New Deal, yet tempered by the economic trauma of the Great Depression and an immigrant’s experience of hardscrabble survival.”
See more examples from the exhibition here: