Magazine article Artforum International

Mass Hysteria

Magazine article Artforum International

Mass Hysteria

Article excerpt

It is not enough to be exceptionally mad, licentious, and fanatical in order to win a great reputation; it is still necessary to arrive on the scene at the right time.

- Voltaire

Paparazzi are notoriously ruthless characters who trade in visual exposure and derision. In the photographs taken by Weegee for the New York tabloids of ca. 1935-45, those paparazzo effects of sensationalism and impudence are crossed with laughter, which destabilizes everything. Though his methods are often expeditious in themselves, they are so charged by conflicting drives as to produce strikingly incongruous emotional content. His freelance crime scenes often look comedic when they're supposed to be forensic. Escaping by a hair from a burning building, people break down not from trauma, but in mirth. And what was it about being arrested that caused some suspects to smirk?

Weegee's notion of funniness was based on the gag and the wisecrack, which he projected onto dramatic, incriminating, even calamitous situations. This way of finding low humor in "human interest" picture stories - or forcing it into them - was nothing new, but he took it to extremes. So he used hilarity as a cover for his own libido, which led him to leer with a Speed Graphic down bodices or up skirts. And he had a genuine interest in the grotesque, isolated by a flash in hard-edged grimaces and convulsions.

The ordinary behavior of Weegee's New Yorkers is rarely less than hyperbolic. Their eyes sparkle and they pantomime wildly, as did actors in the silent movies for which he once played the fiddle in earlier days. No matter how grievous or joyous the human moment, he tended to see it as farce. Many writers have alluded to the affinity of his photos with Hollywood noir, without noting his allegiance to slapstick and Keystone. Repeatedly, schlemiels or sad sacks of every type have been marooned in sinister milieus where they can and sometimes do get killed. This son of a peddler who later became a rabbi had a lot to answer for, and his wonderfully tasteless pictures don't do it.

I remember coming out of the Weegee retrospective at the International Center of Photography in 1977 with Lucas Samaras, who admired the playful shock of the show, yet at the same time was put off by work not based "on art ideas." Those lifeless bodies were never, after all, going to get up again. If anything, the ICP Midtown's recent "Weegee's World: Life, Death, and the Human Drama," a larger survey curated by Miles Barth, had an even more pungent impact. For just as these images excite the eye, Weegee's setups and encounters with New York life grate with a psychic dissonance that stops you cold. However much this flip and inconsequent tone may typify a certain aspect of Yiddish storytelling, it went astray in the medium of photography. It's hard to recover what was meant by his impertinence in scenes of real terror, or by his harshness toward those who were having a good time.

Gradually, though, we realize that the "good time" happened to be acidified by an imagemaker not self-reflective enough to be an artist in our sense of the word, even as he knew that he was more than a reporter. Weegee savored the laughter caused by pleasure, surprise, wonder, relief, nerves; he took marvelous inventories of these emotions. He was particularly attuned to the bliss evoked by gospel in Harlem, drinks at Sammy's, and jazz in the Village. But the feelings that seem to have meant the most to him, judging by the frequency with which they were pictured, were the laughter of triumph and the smile of complicity.

A staple of such interchange was people brightening up when he singled them out. They were about to become news, and they acted on reflex. Such was the case in the astonishing shot of a drowned-looking victim whose girlfriend couldn't help flashing a smile at the photographer. Other subjects might very well have been amused by the clownish man with a cigar and flash, or, at the least, they went along with the joke, like the jolly plainclothesman who shows off his catch, a dwarf arrested for selling "French postcards. …

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