A Polish immigrant, Weegeeâ€”who took his name from the Ouija board (pronounced
"wee-gee" in his adopted country)â€”is most famous for his distinctive depictions of
American (born Poland),
urban mayhem in the United States' most populous and culturally diverse city, New
1899-1968 Their First Murder, before 1945 Gelatin silver print 2 5 . 7 x 2 7 . 9 cm (101/8x 11 in.) 86.XM.4.6 Detail overleaf
York. Weegee had an uncanny knack for turning up at a murder, fire, or other disaster before the authorities did by listening to a police radio; hence his pseudonym. He was a self-taught practitioner who scratched out a living, and later in life a certain amount of fame, as a freelance photographer specializing in crime-scene images for New York's daily tabloids. Many of his images focus on the spectators and gawkers who gathered around for the spectacle of an event immediately after it occurred. While the body of a murder victim offers somewhat limited photographic possibilities, the surrounding crowds present a startling range of emotions and reactions. Weegee also took many photographs of different classes of New Yorkers, from the wealthy elite at an opera premiere to the down-and-out drunks in the Bowery. The title of this photograph belies the carnival-like atmosphere of the image while encapsulating a sense of the cynicism and disorder of modern New York. The viewer is confronted by a tangled mass of humanity, all straining to witness some unseen calamity. The beauty of this photograph lies in its panoply of human emotions: glee, curiosity, anger, fear. Almost lost in the crush of heads is the grief welling up on the face of a female relative of the murder victim. Weegee's flashbulb bathes the onlookers in a harsh, unflattering light while plunging the background into darkness. The need to rush to editors photographs that would then be printed on half-tone presses precluded the need for subtle printing. Weegee's photography anticipates such later masters as Robert Frank, Garry Winogrand, and Diane Arbus.
114 T W E N T I E T H C E N T U R Y
Masterpieces J. Paul Getty Museum