Fondation Henri Cartier–Bresson presents the exhibition 'Weegee: Autopsy of the Spectacle'
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Fondation Henri Cartier–Bresson presents the exhibition 'Weegee: Autopsy of the Spectacle'
Self-Portrait, Weegee with Speed Graphic Camera, 1950 © International Center of Photography. Collection Friedsam.



PARIS.- There’s a mystery to Weegee. The American photographer’s career seems to be split in two. One side includes his sensational photography printed in North American tabloids: corpses of gangsters lying in pools of their own blood, bodies trapped in battered vehicles, kingpins looking sinister behind the bars of prison wagons, dilapidated slums consumed by fire, and other harrowing documents on the lives of the underprivileged in New York from 1935 to 1945. Then come the festive photographs–glamorous parties, performances by entertainers, jubilant crowds, openings and premieres– to which we must add a vast array of portraits of public figures that Weegee delighted in distorting using a rich palette of tricks between 1948 and 1951, a practice he pursued until the end of his life. How can these diametrically opposed bodies of work coexist? Critics have enjoyed highlighting the opposition between the two periods, praising the former and disparaging the latter. The exhibition Autopsy of the Spectacle seeks to reconcile the two parts of Weegee by showing that, beyond formal differences, the photographer’s approach is critically coherent.

The spectacle is omnipresent in Weegee’s work. In the first part of his career, which coincides with the rise of the tabloid press, he was an active participant in transforming news into spectacle. To show this, he often included spectators, or other photographers, in the foreground of his images. In the second half of his career, Weegee mocked the Hollywood spectacular: its ephemeral glory, adoring crowds and social scenes. Some years before the Situationist International, his photography presented an incisive critique of the Society of the Spectacle.

With a new perspective on Weegee’s oeuvre, Autopsy of the Spectacle presents the photographer’s iconic images beside lesser-known works, including images not-yet-exhibited in France.

BIOGRAPHY

Weegee was born Usher Felig on June 12, 1899, to a Jewish family in Zolochiv, a small town in Galicia, then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, today in Western Ukraine. At 11 years old, he joined his father who’d emigrated to the United States. At Ellis Island immigration station, he became Arthur Fellig. Living in the slums of the Lower East Side, he left school at 14 to earn money to support his family. After working in different professions, he became a traveling photographer, worked for photographers Duckett & Adler, then in the ACME Newspictures agency lab. Starting in 1935, he was self-employed as photo-reporter. Towards 1937, he began using the pseudonym Weegee, and around 1941, started marking the backs of his prints with a stamp in the form of a self-fulfilling prophecy: “Weegee the Famous.” For 10 years, his radio tuned to the police frequency, he took photographs, mainly at night, of crime, arrests, fires, accidents and other news items.

Though the photographer most certainly had connections within the police, without whom his work would not have been possible, he also frequented left-wing circles. He was very close to the Photo League, a group of independent photographers who firmly believed in emancipation through the image and fought for social justice. In 1945, he published his best photographs in a book entitled Naked City, which met with great success both in its reception and sales. In the spring of 1948, he moved to Hollywood to work in cinema as a technical advisor, and sometimes, as an actor.

He photographed the endless party and developed different photographic techniques to create his caricatures of celebrities. In December of 1951, after four years on the West Coast, he returned to New York with no intention of resuming his former practice. Up until his death on December 26, 1968, the majority of his work involved taking advantage of his notoriety to publish other books, go on tour, and promote his
photo-caricatures in newspapers.

Fondation Henri Cartier-Bresson
Weegee: Autopsy of the Spectacle
January 30th, 2024 – May 19, 2024










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