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The way our society and the media cover the dead and the dying — the funerals of soldiers killed in Iraq or Afghanistan, the body on a street after a firefight or violent demonstration — these are not new issues.
At the International Center of Photography in New York, there's a new exhibit of the photographs of Arthur Fellig, better known as Weegee. "Murder Is My Business" focuses, in large part, on the decade Weegee spent in the 1930s and '40s devoted to crime photography.
One of the first rooms you enter at the exhibit is one that re-creates his studio apartment that was right across from a police station. Paint peeling off metal bedposts, thin ratty blankets. Newspaper pages of all of his articles on the wall. His camera, his typewriter, his police radio, and an entire wall of self-portraits, including a series where he takes the role of criminal: Weegee in handcuffs, Weegee's mug shot. He's clearly very taken with himself.
"One of the things that is extraordinary in the Weegee archive is that there are over 1,500 self-portraits of Weegee," says Brian Wallis, chief curator of the ICP and the curator of this exhibition. "In this room there are a lot of pictures [of him] posing with evidence and with other criminals, styling himself as a hard-boiled detective who is on the case."
The ICP has the entire Weegee archive: 16,000 photographs and 7,000 negatives from many periods of his life, including his groundbreaking book of New York life, Naked City.
But he started with murder. He followed police reports, freelancing for the tabloids. There are pictures of dead bodies, of the wounded, of car crash victims. Sometimes blood is dripping, although Wallis says the photographs steer away from the gory. In fact, the exhibit contrasts several of Weegee's photographs with much more graphic police forensic photos of the same scene. "Often he photographed the corpse in a very stylized way," Wallis says.
A gun is lying just so near the body; a sense of distance, of the abstract. Weegee talks about murder in a 1958 recording called "Famous Photographers Tell How." He says the easiest job to cover is a murder, "because the stiff would be lying on the ground; he couldn't get up and walk away and get temperamental, and he would be good for at least two hours."
The most impressive photographs don't dwell on the body, but on those who are watching. "One thing that sets Weegee's photographs apart from other news photographers," says Wallis, "was his interest in what he called human drama."
In one of his most famous photographs, there are a dead body and people watching from the fire escape of a five-story tenement building. In that same recording, Weegee says, "They are looking. They are having a good time. Some of the kids are reading the funny papers." Then he describes how another photographer only shot the body lying there, but he stepped back 100 feet to get the whole scene: the body, the people. "To me this was drama," he said. "This was like a backdrop. Of course the title for it was Balcony seats at a murder."
Weegee often had trouble getting his pictures in the papers. He appealed primarily to a tabloid audience, used to more lurid photographs. But Wallis says that although the newspapers may have used lurid headlines, the pictures themselves were rather tame.
It's evident that the issue of how we represent the dead is still with us. Wallis doesn't think there is that much difference between attitudes in the '30s and '40s and now. And despite the gore on television and in film, in some ways our attitudes toward privacy are stronger now.
As to the question of how to present the dead and dying, Wallis says it represents a bigger question: "[How] do we draw the lines between what are acceptable and unacceptable forms of representation, which are really about establishing social mores — how do we want to represent ourselves to ourselves?"
It's something we are clearly still wrestling with. "Murder Is My Business" is at the International Center for Photography until September.
Correction: January 29, 2012 12:00 am — The audio version of this story, as did a previous Web version, misidentifies the curator of the exhibit as David Wallis. He is Brian Wallis.