Weegee's wild Village
The hard-bitten crime photographer turned a softer lens on his home, New York City's Greenwich Village, capturing Bohemia in its fullest flower.
By LENNIE BENNETT
Published November 13, 2005
ST. PETERSBURG - Except for Harlem, no New York neighborhood evokes a nostalgic past more than Greenwich Village. Marshland in what is now southern Manhattan, it was cleared by Dutch settlers in the 1600s, and after the English conquered the Dutch settlement of New Amsterdam further north, the area became a separate village. A yellow fever epidemic in the early 1800s drove many people there from upper Manhattan because the air was considered healthier, and it became a gentrified enclave.
Fast-forward several decades. The wealthy were resettling the Upper East Side, which had been rebuilt with a formal grid of streets and avenues, elegant brownstones and limestone mansions. By the beginning of the 20th century, the Village, as it was called, had become a bohemian enclave for writers and artists. Eugene O'Neill, John Reed and Marcel Duchamp were among the cultural and political agitators calling the neighborhood home.
But its fullest flowering as Bohemia Central was during the 1950s, when a generation of young people gathered under the Beat banner, which also spawned the equally countercultural folk music movement into the 1960s. That is the period of time people think of when they think of Greenwich Village, which today is once more a gentrified locus for Starbucks and the sitcom Friends.
It may be gone forever, but we can visit that golden age with a trip to "Art, Love and Life in the Village: Weegee's Wild New York" at the Museum of Fine Arts.
Weegee is the unlikely author of a stroll down memory lane. Born Arthur Fellig, he built a reputation beginning in the 1930s as an aggressive crime photographer. He gave himself the name Weegee after the Ouija board because he claimed to have a sixth sense about breaking news. He may have had, but more likely it was the police radio he installed in his car that got him to the scene sometimes before law enforcement. Nor was he above elbowing and bullying his way past colleagues to get the best, grittiest, even lurid angle. In 1941, he had a one-person show at the New York Photo League titled "Weegee: Murder Is My Business."
These images of the Village, though, convey an almost sentimental side to the hard-bitten reporter. He lived there and recorded the mise en scene beginning in the early 1950s. Through the years, until his death in 1969, he published several collections of photography, but the Village series remained mostly unknown.
But Dr. Robert Drapkin, a local St. Petersburg collector, found the mockup of a book Weegee intended to publish, and he and his wife, Chitranee, persuaded Weegee's widow to publish it and allow new prints to be made from the negatives. Some photographs have been shown individually, but this is the first time they have been exhibited as a group, which the Drapkins gave to the museum.
Through Weegee's eyes, the Village was mostly one big love and song fest. He goes to a party where young men wear T-shirts and khakis and women capris and white Keds (Keds!). Everyone sits on the floor engrossed in conversation or, more often, each other. There was a lot of making out, moving on and making out some more, usually with a cigarette in one hand and a glass of jug wine in the other.
Of the parties, he wrote, "If by 4 o'clock, the witching hour, you have not met anybody, something is wrong with you."
On one gallery wall, photographs are arranged to suggest an evening trawling the Village's streets, nightclubs and coffee shops, especially its most famous hangout, the Limelight. No one seems to have enough money for a real meal. According to Weegee, "You never see anybody eat in the Village - the steady diet is beer."
The series may be a departure from Weegee's better-known violent milieu, but it has its own edge. His lens sometimes gets uncomfortably close to people in intimate situations, seemingly unaware of his voyeuristic presence. At other times, his insinuation simply makes the viewer feel like a part of the action, especially the wonderful takes on outdoor art shows and sing-alongs in Washington Square.
And Weegee's famous eye for tightly composed frames shot on the fly gives the documentary format a sense of timeless spontaneity rather than moments frozen in time.
The exhibition is arranged in a loosely thematic way, with quotes from Weegee about the Village on the walls. His subjects are anonymous except for a photograph of James Dean sitting moodily in a nightclub corner smoking (of course) while a nearby couple hug joyously. In the center of the larger gallery, chairs, tables and accessories are set up on a patch of linoleum to re-create the atmosphere of the Limelight (no smoke, of course). Headsets are nearby so visitors can listen to interviews of people who lived in the Village during those heady years, such as another well-known photographer, Herb Snitzer, who now lives in St. Petersburg.
From a guy whose career was to chronicle at close range the worst his fellow man could serve up, "Art, Love and Life in the Village" is a tribute to the idea that in looking closely, you can often find much that is wonderful, too.
- Lennie Bennett can be reached at 727 893-8293 or email@example.comREVIEW
"Art, Love and Life in the Village: Weegee's Wild New York" is at the Museum of Fine Arts, 255 Beach Drive NE, St. Petersburg. Hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday and 1 to 5 p.m. Sunday. Admission is $8 adults, $7 seniors and $4 for students older than 6 with ID. Also on view are works by Peter Max and "The Sixties Show," selections from the permanent collection. 727 896-2667 or www.fine-arts.org