A new look at Weegee's photos noir

MAGAZINES

March 13, 1994|By Mark Feeney | Mark Feeney,Boston Globe

Arthur Fellig earned his nickname "Weegee" because of an unnerving ability to arrive at crime scenes before police did. It was as if he used a Ouija board as well as a camera to do his job. That job was selling to New York newspapers the scabrous photos he took of petty crooks, accident victims, untold weary walkers in the city. Weegee retailed a leering, leprous vision of urban life. Even though his heyday was the '30s and '40s, his influence lives on.

Look at a Diane Arbus photo, read an Ed McBain novel or watch an episode of "NYPD Blue," and you see some small part of Weegee. How Americans envision cities today owes not a little to his frenzied patrols of those mean streets back then.

With the energy of be-bop and the menace of film noir (two other arresting aberrations of mid-century America), Weegee's photographs come as close to art as a tabloid sensibility has gotten.

Their cheerful sordidness in both substance and approach makes it oddly appropriate that 18 previously unpublished Weegee photos should run in the Threepenny Review (Winter). After all, the photographer was a character right out of "The Threepenny Opera" -- the shark may have such teeth, dear, but Weegee had a Speed Graphic -- and it would take a Bertolt Brecht to provide the thousands of words his pictures are worth.

Brecht not being available, the Threepenny commissioned nine writers to respond verbally to these singular images.

Thom Gunn offers a poem. Another poet, Robert Pinsky, turns to prose to evoke "this doomed and lusty world . . . which unlike our yearning toward it is not timeless." Mindy Aloff makes us see Weegee as "a freak of monstrous enthusiasm."

*

The Wilson Quarterly is perhaps the last publication you'd expect to pick up for the art, but the winter issue happily defies that expectation. The drawings, photographs and schematics of Depression-era trains that accompany Mark Reutter's "The Lost Promise of the American Railroad" pay tribute to a design vision of such stainless-steel sleekness it can still take your breath away more than half a century later, as can the sound of such famous train names as the Broadway Limited and Super Chief, Flying Yankee and Orange Blossom Special.

As Mr. Reutter notes, "The passenger train had always been more to America than a means of transportation. It was a historical force that opened up and bound together a nation of scattered territories and states." But, in writing about how, in the decades after World War II, the passenger train ceased to be such a force, Mr. Reutter buys too heavily into the mythic allure of the railroad while underestimating the inherent appeal of the automobile.

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