Faces with four eyes... Mouths puckered in ugly smooches... Torsos touting seven warped breasts... Women with three legs...
On first glance, it might appear that the notorious photographer known as Weegee reveled in nothing more than caustic disdain for the often ludicrous antics of mid-century Hollywood, as seen in a collection of lurid photographs currently on view at MOCA Grand Avenue in a show titled Naked Hollywood: Weegee in Los Angeles, and collected as well in a book of the same title.
Weegee, known primarily for his graphic portraits of dead mobsters and murder victims in the book Naked City, made Los Angeles his home and the subject of his photographs between 1947 and 1952. Leaving behind his trademark gritty realism, Weegee began to create surreal distortions and bizarre collages as a means to comment on disparities readily apparent in our city's fascination with fame and fortune, with glamor and beauty. The resulting pictures are ugly, disfigured and disturbing. And that's a good reason to pay attention to them.
Curated by Richard Meyer, associate professor of art history and fine arts and director of The Contemporary Project at USC, the show features approximately 200 photographs organized by theme in several rooms in the museum in the first show in Southern California of Weegee's work. The show came about because Meyer remembered seeing evidence of hundreds, if not thousands, of images from Weegee's L.A. years, and so he decided to investigate. He discovered over 1,000 pictures by Weegee in the International Center of Photography in New York, many of which had never been published or shown before.
The accompanying book brings together an essay by Meyer to create a sense of context, as well as the second "pulp" edition of Weegee's collections of his images called Naked Hollywood, which he co-created with Mel Harris; several articles from the 1950s that feature Weegee's pictures; and excerpts from two books he wrote or co-wrote: Weegee's Secrets of Shooting Photoflash, as Told to Mel Harris (1953) and Weegee by Weegee: An Autobiography (1961). The goal of this collection of work in the book? "We aim to suggest something of Weegee's unique voice and the visual and cultural context in which his Hollywood photographs first circulated," explains Meyer.
Overall, the book and the show together showcase biting commentary and breezy irreverence crafted through various techniques. While Weegee delighted in showcasing the less spectacular sides of Hollywood and Los Angeles, capturing inequities and banalities alike, the images that stand out are the monstrous bodies that he created. He developed what he called an "elastic lens," which made use of trick lens and various forms of manipulation to create freakish forms of well-known celebrities, models and strippers. Notes Meyer, "Weegee understood his elastic lens as both a response to and a kind of revenge on Hollywood."
In his essay, Meyer doesn't shy away from the question concerning Weegee's place in the museum. He explains that the boundaries between fine art, photography and commerce are becoming more blurred since the 1950s when Naked Hollywood was first published. But he also suggests that Weegee has something to teach us, and isolates three key imperatives, all of which are fundamental to Weegee's own work: first, look all around you, not just at the main event; second, think serially and photograph things in sets to create a larger point; and third, consider distortion as a primary attribute of photography.
What Meyer doesn't acknowledge, though, is that the museum needs this kind of imagery to spark interest. It's not simply that offensive and sensational images draw crowds, but rather that the class-based hierarchy between high and low culture - so often figured in the deformation of the body - requires continued attention. Indeed, Weegee's genius is in his overt manipulation of imagery to create a very specific critical commentary, one that mounts its attack visually. The shock that we experience isn't just in the deformation of the body, but in the bold criticality of a photographer not content with merely capturing images.
The exhibition runs through February 27, 2012. This Thursday, December 15, join exhibition researcher MacKenzie Bennett and Guest Assistant Curator Jason Goldman for a walkthrough of the exhibit at 6:30 p.m.