INTERPRETING WEEGEE THROUGH SONTAG (AND ARBUS)
In Susan Sontag’s essay America, Seen Through Photographs, Darkly, she begins by referring to Walt Whitman’s democratizing view of culture.The great poet, she writes, “ . . . discerned art already being overtaken, and demystified, by reality.” (27) In this view, beauty and ugliness, importance and triviality all blend together in a cultural leveling. Sontag adds her own opinion that it is Art itself, and particularly photography, that aspires to do the demystifying. Photographs “confer importance” on a subject, and she points not only to Whitman but to Warhol for proof that “no moment is more important than any other moment; no person is more interesting than any other person.” (28)
Sontag uses Diane Arbus, whose work she describes as rebellious yet dispassionate, to elaborate on this notion that Art can demystify reality. Surprisingly, she waits until near the end of the essay to mention that the photographer Arbus felt closest to was Weegee, and then dismisses the connection as superficial. “Weegee’s photographs are indeed upsetting, his sensibility is urban,” Sontag writes, “but the similarity ends there. However eager she was to disavow standard elements of photographic sophistication such as composition, Arbus was not unsophisticated.” (46) No further mention is made of Weegee, leaving the reader with the impression that Sontag found his nocturnal spot-news artiness a quirky sideshow to Arbus’s aesthetic and social subversion.
Nevertheless, while viewing a collection of Weegee’s images, such as the exhibition currently on display at the Getty Museum, it’s difficult not to think of Arbus, and by extension Sontag’s extrapolations. An obvious example is Shorty, the Bowery Cherub. Taken in 1942, this photograph shows a dwarf in what appears to be diapers, sipping a drink, surrounded by friends in a bar. Aside from the strikingly similar subject matter, there are technical similarities between this image and the typical Arbus portrait: the frontal composition; the gaze from subject to camera; the harsh exposure of the direct flash. Both photographers lend credence to Sontag’s assertion that “What is safe no longer monopolizes public imagery. The freakish is no longer a private zone, difficult of access.” (45) Sontag describes the camera, as it is used in this type of photography, as a “kind of passport that annihilates moral boundaries and social inhibitions, freeing the photographer from any responsibility toward the people photographed.” (41)
The two photographers have more similarities than differences in this respect. Working primarily as a press photographer, Weegee was fascinated by the people he met in the dangerous, seductive swirl of New York nightlife. Police scanner chasing, deadline-beating images of accident and crime victims were his trademark, but it’s doubtful that those images alone would earn him the attention of the Art World. Photographs such as Shorty reveal a voyeurism given voice through the journalistic imperative of recording life as he found it to be interesting. This is what makes Weegee valuable to the Getty and their patrons: the photographer as “supertourist, an extension of the anthropologist, visiting natives and bringing back news of their exotic doings and strange gear.” (42) It is this scopophilic obsession that fuels what Sontag referred to in the 1970s as “ . . . a leading tendency of high art in capitalist countries: to suppress, or at least reduce, moral and sensory queasiness.” (40) In this context, Weegee’s work sits roughly alongside and certainly adjacent to the likes of Arbus, Winogrand, Frank, Friedlander, Klein and others. Worth noting is the fact that Weegee was bringing his camera into those private zones years before the rest. One can also look to Brassai's Paris nightlife images as a precursor to what Weegee found in New York...
WHIMSY v. SOPHISTICATION
Diane Arbus’s fascination with her “aristocrats of society” allowed her to purge personal demons through the appropriation and interpretation of her subjects. Sontag validates Arbus’s masochism by intoning that a compassionate response to these images is simply irrelevant. (40-41) Arbus, she implies, is more likely to draw comparisons with Walker Evans than a newsman like Weegee: “There is nothing journalistic about her motives for taking pictures, ” we are told. Aside from the narrowness of what Sontag allows us to consider journalism, this overlooks Arbus’s need to make a living, which led to countless magazine assignments . . .
Photographs confer importance on a subject, and the author’s dismissal of Weegee as little more than a cursory influence on Arbus can be blamed on the irreverent tabloid pathos of his more mischievous work. Whimsical indeed, that a cigar-chomping photographer named after a parlor game would not discourage a cross-dresser, exiting the back of a paddy wagon in the wee hours, from posing provocatively for his camera. (46) In Sontag’s demystification paradigm, where no one person or moment is more important or interesting than another, this is no way for a sophisticated photographer to carry on.