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In the late 1940s, New York City's most recognizable news photographer was a character who called himself Weegee (real name: Arthur Fellig.) Carrying the large flashbulb cameras popular at the time, and always smoking a fat stogie, he would show up at crime scenes often before the cops. His speciality was the gritty side of the city, and his photos were so sought-after that he was able to compile them into a book, The Naked City. His business card identified his as The Famous Weegee.
Then he came to Los Angeles to try his hand at photographing Hollywood. He opened an office on Selma Avenue and for four years he snapped photos on the streets, showed up at movie premieres and captured images of celebrities wherever he was allowed to go. The result is a body of work that the curators of the Museum of Contemporary Art on Bunker Hill deemed worthy of a special exhibition during the ongoing Pacific Standard Times series at museums across Southern California.
Weegee's Los Angeles photos sometimes target ordinary street life and make an honest appraisal of the way things looked then. One image included in the MOCA exhibition simply shows a row of palm trees on Carson Drive in Beverly Hills, as well as the glimpses of the street's intersection with Wilshire Boulevard. Beautiful it is not, but neither does it try to glamorize Los Angeles in an artificial way. The scene is what it is.
Even when he was shooting Hollywood glamour, Weegee did not simply glorify the stars and their movies. Instead, he often focused his cameras the other way, on the fans who would ohh and awe outside premieres on Hollywood Boulevard. Or on the celebrities themselves, catching them while they were eating inelegantly, or doing something else mundane that took a little of the shine off their stars. He did specialize in the posed glamour shots that so many photographers made their livings on.
Weegee took it a step farther and even subverted the very image of the stars. He devised a plastic lens that would distort faces and figures into the kind of shapes more often seen in carnival fun house mirrors. On the MOCA walls are images of Elizabeth Taylor eating dinner with her seatmates elongated into unnatural shapes, Marilyn Monroe with a pig nose and stars such as Lucille Ball twisted into barely recognizable images of themselves. Weegee also joined the Screen Actors Guild and became a movie extra himself, a giveaway that self-promotion was a big part of his motivation. He was the subject of a documentary short at the time, and he often shows up in the photos.
As Iris Schneider posts at LA Observed:
"Here's a riddle from the art world: Who was part huckster, part experimental trailblazer and part social commentator, lampooning society's adoration of celebrity, but longing to be one at the same time? Warhol, you say? No, turns out it's Weegee, the cigar chomping photographer — aka Arthur Fellig — who fled New York in 1946, where he made his reputation as a chronicler of the night, of crime scenes and the spectators who gathered to watch, to turn his sights on Hollywood."
"Claiming he was 'through with the newspaper game,' after selling the title of his book of New York photographs called The Naked City to a producer who turned it into a movie, he was drawn to Hollywood. But, as the sweeping show currently up at MOCA proves, Weegee was a lot more complicated than we thought."
After four years or so, he returned to New York with more than 5,000 photos and a lot of great stories. It's fitting that they are being shown again as part of the Pacific Standard Time retrospective of Los Angeles art during the formative postwar period.