RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Whether it's the funerals of soldiers killed in Afghanistan or the victims of street violence here at home, media images of the dead and the dying always cause discomfort. One man made his career pushing the boundaries of what's too real, too uncomfortable to capture on film. Arthur Fellig, better known as Weegee, shot crime photos for New York tabloids in the 1930s and '40s.
Fellig's work is being showcased at a new exhibit at the International Center of Photography in New York. It's called "Murder Is My Business." NPR's Margot Adler reports.
MARGOT ADLER, BYLINE: When you enter the center near Times Square, one of the first rooms in the Weegee exhibit re-creates his one-room studio right across from the police station. Paint is peeling on the metal bedposts; thin, ratty blankets; newspaper pages on the wall, of his photographs and articles; his camera, his typewriter, his police radio; and an entire wall of self-portraits, including a series of shots where he takes the roll of criminal: Weegee in handcuffs, Weegee's mug shot.
BRIAN WALLIS: One of the things that is extraordinary in the Weegee archive is the fact that there are over 1,500 self-portraits of Weegee
ADLER: That's David Wallis, chief curator of the International Center of Photography and of this exhibition. [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: The curator was misidentified. His name is Brian Wallis.]
WALLIS: In this room, you see a lot of pictures of him posing with evidence and posing with other criminals, and styling himself as kind of a hard-boiled detective who's on the case.
ADLER: The ICP has the entire Weegee archive - 16,000 photographs, 7,000 negatives from many periods of his life, including his groundbreaking book of New York life, "Naked City."
But he started with murder, following police reports, freelancing for the tabloids; taking pictures of dead bodies, of the wounded, of car crash victims. Sometimes blood is dripping, although Wallis says the photographs steer away from the gory. In fact, the exhibit contrasts several of Weegee's photographs with much more graphic police forensic photos of the same scene.
WALLIS: Often, he photographed the corpse in a very stylized way.
ADLER: A gun lying just so near the body - a sense of distance, of the abstract. Here, Weegee is talking about murder, in a 1958 recording called "Famous Photographers Tell How."
ARTHUR FELLIG: Now, the easiest kind of a job to cover was a murder because the stiff would be laying on the ground; he couldn't get up and walk away, or get temperamental. And he was - we would be good for at least two hours.
ADLER: But the most impressive photographs don't dwell on the bodies, but on those who are watching. As Wallis puts it...
WALLIS: One thing that really sets Weegee's photographs apart from other news photographers was his interest in what he called human drama.
ADLER: In one of his most famous photographs, there is a body, and people watching from the fire escape of a five-story tenement building. Again, Weegee from 1958.
FELLIG: They're looking. They're having a good time. Some of the kids are even reading the funny papers. There was another photographer there, and he made what they call a 10-foot shot, of just the guy lying in the doorway - that was it. To me, this was drama. This was like a backdrop.
I stepped all the way back, about 100 feet. I used flash powder, and I got this whole scene: the people on the fire escapes, the body - everything. Of course, the title for it was "Balcony Seats at a Murder."
ADLER: Weegee's unusual voice and accent so captivated actor Peter Sellers, who met him on the set of "Dr. Strangelove," that apparently he put a bit of that accent into the title character.
Weegee often had trouble getting his pictures in the papers. Wallis says his photos did not get into the New York Times. He appealed primarily to a tabloid audience, used to more lurid photographs. But according to Wallis...
WALLIS: They may have dramatic headlines, but the pictures themselves are rather tame.
ADLER: Wallis doesn't think there's that much difference between attitudes in the '30s and '40s and now, about how we portray the dead. Despite the gore on television dramas and in film, he says, in some ways attitudes toward privacy are stronger now. Would Weegee's photos get into the New York Times today? Wallis says of these issues...
WALLIS: It really represents a larger question about how we draw the lines between what is acceptable and unacceptable forms of representation, which are really about establishing social mores - how we want to represent ourselves to ourselves.
ADLER: It's something we're, clearly, still wrestling with. "Murder is my Business" is at the International Center of Photography until September.
Margot Adler, NPR News, New York.
MARTIN: And you can see some of Weegee's photographs at NPR.org.