Saturday, March 3, 2012

Gallery Visit: The International Center for Photography & Weegee

I have to admit that I did not do my homework very well before arriving in New York, I came across this gallery simply by walking past it and then with great surprise found they were holding a WeeGee exhibition.  New York bliss!

This gallery contrasted sharply to MOMA, here photography was everything, .  The $10 entry was also a bargain compared to MOMA's $25, although clearly the scope was far narrower.

The gallery featured a major exhibit and several smaller ones dedicated to individual artists or themes.  In an area upstairs from the underground primary gallery space 3 photographers exhibited small collections.  Each was very much in the modern style of presentation, i.e.really BIG prints.  I suspect the Germans have much to answer for here (later today I am off to the Thomas Ruff exhibit in Munich)! This was a particular contrast for me when comparing to MOMA.  Most prints in MOMA were at best 30cm across, but offered a much more personal interaction than these huge modern prints.  These smaller prints drew me in to look at them, the larger prints pushed me away.  There is clearly an ongoing trend towards bigger is better in the art photography world.  I am not convinced this is a good thing.  I am beginning to think that my A3 prints are a good compromise between past and present practice.

Of the three photographers on display, Greg Girard's study of US military housing and base facilities caught our interest.  My wife grew up at a US base in Germany, going to school and working in and around the US military.  As a result these images were able to make a personal connection that others failed to achieve.  Much of the impact of modern photography is in the connection between viewer and artist.

However, the main event was the WeeGee exhibit.  Arthur Fellig, the Squeegee man who became one of New Yorks most celebrated photographers.  This was an excellent exhibit, combining his photographs with the sounds of the between war city and including artifacts from his life: his hat, his Speed Graphic, a reconstruction of the bed and desk he lived at in his darkroom.  Heidi chatted with one of the staff and they mentioned that the opening of the exhibit was delayed as far more material arrived for exhibit than they expected.  WeeGee was a feature of the city, people wanted to contribute to this celebration of his life and work.

WeeGee created a record of the social climate of New York, a landscape of crime, hedonism and poverty.  Although most famous for his lurid flash lit photographs of blood spattered corpses, car wrecks or fires, he also turned his camera on the people of the city capturing their reaction to these events.  Faces stretch into the frame, a mixture of excitement and terror, these photographs bring you into the crime ridden world of prohibition era New York

The above photo captures this time, kids jostle and fight at the scene of a murder, people laugh and smile.  This is an event, a catastrophe for a few, but street theater for the many.  It brings to mind the public hangings of the 17th and 18th centuries.  Supplying the tabloids it might be argued that WeeGee was an early paparazzi, I do not see him this way, he was a social documentarian, making his living capturing the horror of crime, but always turning his camera to the ordinary people of the city.  

The exhibit captured this diversity, including his shots of Coney Island holiday crowds and the theater goers of Manhatten.  This was a record of a man in love with the thrill of photography and the people of his city.

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