This post has unfortunately been long delayed but I am eager to talk a little about Weegee’s work on Hollywood currently on display at MOCA grand avenue in LA. The shows provides a glimpse into the quintessential-New York photographer’s take on/over Hollywood in the 1940s and 50s through photographs, film clips, posters, articles, and, of course, his book, Naked Hollywood. As usual, MOCA takes on a big cohesive subject and does a wonderful job presenting it from several different angles. The curatorial effort by USC art historian Richard Meyer allows the viewer to focus not only on the works presented but also gives a glimpse into the historical and cultural context and contemporary milieu of Weegee’s experience in Hollywood. Yes, this is the goal of most museum exhibitions, but No, this is not usually accomplished. In this case, and I think it was specifically due to the collaboration between scholar and and contemporary art institution, this ideal was fully realized.
Briefly, because if you want to know more about the photographer’s history you should pick up Meyer’s book Weegee and Naked City, Weegee was a pseudonym for the photographer Arthur Fellig, born in Ukraine and who moved to the United States in about 1909. Best known as a newspaper photographer notoriously first on the scene to photograph the most gruesome of crimes in New York, Weegee’s known work also includes many photojournalistic prints documenting the city’s street life in the 1930s and 40s. The part of his life that has been lesser known, until now, was his role as filmmaker, muse, and interloper in 1940′s Hollywoodland. The MOCA exhibition focuses mostly on small (8×10) black and white prints, some grossly manipulated, some seemingly straight but through the lens of Weegee’s gritty realism never appearing to be fully realistic. We are also presented with posters for films such as Dr. Strangelove, for which Weegee acted as set photographer and inspiration for Seller’s Dr.’s heavily accented voice, and the film version of Naked City, inspired by his first book of photographs. Clips from Weegee’s own 16mm films accompany these better known works and incorporate a more surreal version of his photographed reality. We also find his book, Naked Hollywood, as an addendum to the show, with supporting documentations of its publication and reception as well as articles and reproductions of his prints in major magazines intended for varied audiences from the photographic hobbyist to the fashionista. This, in particular, emphasized the cultural and technological precedence for his manipulations.
Looking at black and white 8×10 manipulations of popular celebrities in today’s world of overwhelmingly large and heavily manipulated prints, it is difficult to understand how they would have been read by an audience expecting glamour and reverence, tradition and realism. Today we see these as quaint caricatures, and Weegee himself even called them “Caricatures,” but the innovation isn’t truly understood by the modern viewer. Because photography is taken for granted now as a manipulate-able media, we don’t see the attack on one’s viewing expectations and assumptions that a contemporary would have experienced. Weegee focused on the viewers and consumers of popular culture as much as he did on the celebrity culture itself, and I wonder whether his point is to establish the unreality of this world because of his respect and understanding of the expectations of those consumers? His caricatures were not meant to be quaint depictions of stars’ known features, a manipulation of reality, but rather to point out the true reality of the “celebrity,” that the myth of their being is the “real” for consumers of hollywood culture. The real of marilyn monroe is her lips, the extremes of her body, the real of bette davis is the bulge of her eyes, the myth is their being real in any other way, he depicts in his manipulations a real so much more real because of its extremes. The use of photography in this way is ideal, because the real and the unreal become so blurred in the early years of photographic manipulation (before the ability to manipulate every image came standard on your desktop computer).
I haven’t read Meyer’s book on Weegee yet or the show’s catalogue, but I am eager to do so. A good exhibitions should make you want to know more and more about the subject matter, not necessarily leave you feeling completely sated. The show approaches Weegee as a photographer but also allows him to stand in for theoretical questions, and that is what makes it definitely worth seeing.
Naked Hollywood: Weegee in Los Angeles
MOCA Los Angeles – Grand Avenue
Nov 13, 2011-Feb 27, 2012
KCET article that talks about, among other things, the place for Weegee in the museum (something MOCA explores often with such exhibitions as WACK! and Art in the Streets) – http://www.kcet.org/updaily/socal_focus/arts-culture/naked-hollywood-weegee-in-hollywood-at-moca.html
Meyer & Lee book, Weegee and Naked City http://www.amazon.com/Weegee-Defining-Moments-American-Photography/dp/0520255909