"Weren't they all circus shots?" Weegee's crime scene photography

"Put the guy's hat in picture. People like to see the dead guy's hat."

In a slight departure from his job as founder of the Noir City film festival (coming up at the Castro Theater Jan. 25-Feb. 3), Eddie Muller pays homage to a dark auteur of a different medium with a talk at the Contemporary Jewish Museum on Thu/10. The object of Muller's affection is famed crime scene photographer Arthur Fellig, a.k.a. Weegee. Weegee introduced artistry -- often by way of extra-journalistic manipulation -- into the documentation of extra-legal happenings during the 1930s and '40s, so perhaps Muller's fascination with the subject should come as no surprise. We caught up with Muller via the Interwebs to find out more about why he wants to draw upon Weegee's dark arts in this week's presentation.

San Francisco Bay Guardian: Why Weegee? What initially drew you into his work?

Eddie Muller: It's about time I paid some public lip service to the guy. I've been fascinated by his images and the man himself since I was in high school and first saw his work — about the same time I became interested in film noir. The initial attraction to his photos is their grotesque aspect, the death, and the despair. But when you wise up a little and look deeper into the images, you see the incredible humanity ... and the humor. And for many years unseen work would surface, so he's remained fascinating. 

"Their First Murder" by Weegee

SFBG: How were his shots different from those of other crime scene photographers at the time?

EM: He was a storyteller. Other shooters were just looking for the cold facts, a documentary record of an event. Weegee was on the prowl for stories, ones you could grasp in a glance — and of course he wasn't above manufacturing a news photo to get the story he wanted. There is a lot of editorializing in his work, so he wasn't lying when he described himself as an artist. I love that bit in The Public Eye — in which Joe Pesci essentially plays Weegee in a film noir version of his career — he's shooting a murder victim and he tells the cop "put the guy's hat in picture. People like to see the dead guy's hat." He was a newspaper photographer whose singular style brought out the deeper meaning in his images. That was his art. What's curious is that when he quit journalism to focus exclusively on his art, the work became less interesting, less humane.

"The Critic" by Weegee

SFBG: What about his circus shots? How would you characterize the kinds of themes that Weegee worked with?

EM: Weren't they all circus shots? His nocturnal images of Manhattan are evidence of high-wire acts gone wrong. Not a bad description of life in the big city at 3am. I think his theme, if you want to call it that, was capturing the dread and danger lurking right below the surface of everyday life — but his genius was focusing as often on the people around the murder, the suicide, the tenement fire. The observers, the survivors. That's where you see the courage, the determination, and the humor in "Weegee's People."

SFBG: Do you think he's had a lasting impact on photography? How so?

EM: Absolutely! More than practically any photographer I can think of. Weegee was doing irony way ahead of that curve. He wasn't only influencing news photography, he was influencing movie cinematography. I believe his vision of the big city after dark has a direct impact on the development of film noir in Hollywood. And not just on the camerawork, but on writers. He influenced the way other artists looked at the city, and the people in it. And he brought an entirely new attitude along with the good eye. He was a poor street kid who didn't trust the rich and wanted to rub their noses in all the stuff they'd find impolite and inappropriate for public consumption. I think his attitude, the acceptance of humor and grace and grit amongst the horror and despair has been a huge cultural influence, as much on writing as on any other medium. Weegee was a writer, of sorts. Here's a thumbnail of how he'd work: he wanted the perfect photo of street drunk, so he'd always be on the lookout for guys passed out in the gutters. But it had to be perfect! One night he finds a guy, flat on his back, under the awning for a funeral home. He gets the shot, and of course titles it: Dead Drunk. That's not a news photographer at work. That's not an artist with a camera—the picture isn't even that good. That's a writer—one who uses a camera, not a pen.

"Eddie Muller on the Art and Legacy of Weegee"

Thu/10, 6:30pm, $5 museum admission

Contemporary Jewish Museum

736 Mission, SF


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