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By Chuck Myers
Knight Ridder Newspapers

NEW YORK -- It's shocking. It's buoyant. Sometimes it's poignant.

Mostly, it's unforgettable.

Welcome to ''Weegee's World.''

Between 1936 and 1945, Arthur Fellig, a k a Weegee, scoured New York City with his Speed Graphic camera, seeking out newsworthy events high and low. Relentless in his approach, his camera was indiscriminate and his manner uninhibited.

His subjects are vivid and varied -- Bowery drunks, underworld hoodlums, the poor in tenement housing, circus performers, bar denizens, Sinatra teeny-boppers, lovers in a theater, lovers on the beach, transvestites -- you name it.

Everyone and everything was fair game when Weegee made the scene.

Weegee's unique and irresistible chronicle of big-city life, made by the man who came to embody tabloid-style photography, is highlighted in an exhibition at the International Center of Photography Midtown (1133 Avenue of the Americas, New York).

''Weegee's World: Life, Death and the Human Drama'' contains over 200 of his spirited images, drawn exclusively from ICP's archives. The show was organized by ICP curator Miles Barth and will be on view through March 8.

Fellig was born in 1899 in what is now the Ukraine. His family immigrated to America and landed in New York City in 1906. Growing up on the Lower East Side, Fellig had an impoverished upbringing, and had to sell candy after school to help support the family.

Fellig's early experience in photography began with darkroom jobs during the 1920s, first at the New York Times and later at Acme Newspictures.
While at Acme, he learned the tricks of the trade, and occasionally went out on photo assignments. Over time, he grew increasingly frustrated with Acme's practice of not giving photographers picture credit for their work. By the end of 1935, Weegee was ready to go out on his own.

Depending on which version of lore you choose to believe, Fellig was baptized ''Weegee'' either as a result of his days working as a ''squeegee boy'' in the New York Times' darkroom, or because his appearance and poor hygiene lent itself to a likeness of a fiendish character found on a Ouija board.

Either way, it's a moniker not easily forgotten.

The show is presented in sections that reflect Weegee's own picture organization.

One lively set of images spotlights an eclectic group of festive regulars at ''Sammy's'' -- a favorite Bowery haunt of Weegee's.

Another suite captures the terror and anguish of tenants made homeless by a blazing apartment fire.

At the circus, audience onlookers -- taking in comedy routines and death-defying acts -- were as important to his imagery as the performers themselves.

Among a series of images taken at Coney Island is a phenomenal view from July 1940 of an afternoon on the beach, where nary a square foot of sand can be found amid the overwhelming throng of lively sun worshipers.

Perhaps the most vivid aspect of Weegee's works is a striking sense of immediacy. Although now more than 50 years old, his photos still possess an uncanny sense of place and time that virtually draws the viewer right into the setting.

There's also a decidedly voyeuristic element to Weegee's photos -- a chance to peer into a vortex of human experiences that exist largely beyond the norm of conventional, everyday life.

Nowhere is this more evident than with his riveting crime-scene shots.

Weegee's crime-scene photographs detail victims, perpetrators and bystanders alike.

From a bird's-eye perspective we look upon gunned-down gangsters sprawled out on Manhattan sidewalks. We see gambling fixers under arrest, covering their faces to the camera's presence. We meet transvestites as they exit police wagons. And we encounter the grief, concern and curiosity of a group of Brooklyn neighborhood children and adults as they react to an unseen victim in ''Their first murder.''

A tireless night owl, Weegee initially followed the nocturnal doings of the police and fire departments either on a Teletype machine or through information provided by his contacts. Later, he received a permit to operate a short-wave radio, which allowed him to monitor events more easily.

Weegee was never employed as a newspaper staff photographer per se. He worked primarily as a free-lance photographer, and shot on retainer for PM Daily, a New York daily tabloid, during the early 1940s.

Weegee's popularity peaked in 1945, following the publication of 229 of his engaging photographs in ''The Naked City.'' Enthralled with a movie adaptation of ''The Naked City'' two years later, his interests changed direction, and he headed out for Hollywood.

His tinsel-town experience did not go entirely well. After some consulting work and a few bit parts in movies, Weegee returned to New York in 1952.

Rather than return to photographing life on the streets, Weegee spent nearly the rest of his life experimenting with photo distortions and abstractions. A selection of these images is also found in the show.

Diagnosed with diabetes in 1957, Weegee died on Christmas Day in 1968.

After ''Weegee's World'' closes at ICP, it will begin a tour of Europe that starts in Paris later this year.


  © 2002 Chuck Myers