As I have written about in previous posts (here, here, here, and here), the IMA is very fortunate to have photograph conservator Paul Messier on site with us to conduct a conservation condition survey of all of our collection photographs. This initiative was made possible through a generous grant from the Institute of Museum & Library Services (IMLS) in recognition of IMA’s significant holdings of historic and contemporary photographs. With the information gained from this survey, the IMA hopes to design a program of optimal care that will allow us to responsibly study and exhibit our photographs within the highest standard of preservation.
Paul has recently surveyed our collection of Weegee photographs, which came to the IMA in 2009. Weegee is a pseudonym for Arthur Fellig, who immigrated with his family at the age of 10 to New York from the Ukraine in 1909. He began his work in photography as a darkroom assistant for Acme Newspictures (which became United Press International Photos) before striking out on his own as a freelance photographer, concentrating on crime photography. He would often arrive at crime scenes before the first responders, which led to a joking reputation for prescience. This earned him the nickname of “ouija” (from the future-predicting board game), which was phonetically reinterpreted as “Weegee.” Weegee became well-known as a hard-boiled, scruffy, street-smart individual. He was also a natural self-promoter, who began signing his work “Weegee the Famous.” He is considered one of the first street photographers, as opposed to the traditional studio photographer who worked with staged compositions and tightly controlled content. His approach paved the way for the work of later notable photographers, such as Diane Arbus and Robert Frank. Weegee developed and printed his own photographs, and his work was published in all of the prominent New York City newspapers. He became widely known for his gritty, unvarnished views of crime, but perhaps he is best appreciated today for his capture of NYC life in high and low places—glimpses of ordinary moments frozen into significance as unselfconscious documents of time and place.
Paul called my attention to two particular photographs that struck him as singular, both of which are portraits of Weegee: one is a gelatin-silver print by photographer Larry Block and the other is a color Polaroid self-portrait by Weegee. These images, while very different from each other, are praiseworthy for their success within their respective techniques in conveying a strong sense of personality. They are also beautifully rendered, aptly utilizing the aesthetic parameters of the materials servicing these processes.
The undated portrait of Weegee by Larry Block is a study of the photographer in a pensive moment, fueled by a focused intensity. He is slouched informally, yet commands great presence; the setting is casual but dramatically rendered. This is clearly an individual that deserves our attention even as he ignores the camera, seemingly alone with his thoughts and his trademark cigar.
According to Paul’s survey description “…the image is printed on a double-weight gelatin silver paper, which offers an unusually matte surface that somewhat compresses the tonal range and inhibits a sharp rendering of detail. These characteristics are used to great effect in the broad passage of velvety black in the upper left quadrant. The highlight tone, a moderate reddish/yellow, is an original attribute [of the photographic paper] and was also deliberately chosen by the photographer. The color is applied by the paper manufacturer using pigments and dyes added to the baryta coating. Likewise, the pulp used for the paper base has not been overly whitened.” This type of paper and many other photographic papers with diverse, finely tuned visual characteristics were abundant from the 1920s – 1940s. The Weegee portrait is printed on a paper similar to Geveart Velours paper (produced by the Geveart Company of Antwerp, Belgium, beginning in 1933). This paper was advertised as “the most beautiful paper ever made,” due to a unique surface texture that enabled extraordinarily black shadows “unlike any photographic paper before or since” (P. Messier’s 20th Century Black and White Papers). Such papers were typically used for display and in instances where the expressive intent of the image required a surface evoking other graphic arts media. The 1950s saw a distinct decline in the variety of choices in photographic papers, which worsened considerably in the 1960s. It is common for us now to recognize the look of these early custom surfaces and unique tonalities with a surge of nostalgia and an admiration for how the papers contributed to the emotional interpretation of the images.
It was noticed at the IMA that this portrait of Weegee seems to have a perceptible kinship with a much earlier portrait technology – the intaglio printing technique known as “mezzotint.” This printmaking method first appeared in the 17th c. as an offshoot of the engraving process. Creating a mezzotint entails the use of special gouging tools called “rockers” that impress tiny, ordered pits into the metal plate surface while raising a soft edge of displaced metal around the depressions. This surface captures an extraordinary amount of oil-based printing ink as it is applied across the plate with a rolling brayer. The plate is selectively burnished to minimize the pitted texture to form the lighter areas within the design. When printed, the ink deposited in the rocker pits is offset to the paper and the result for the areas with a high concentration of pits is a deep, atmospheric black that can look like a dense velvet curtain. The mezzotint technique made possible such a range of tonal values that it was used extensively for copying oil paintings into a print idiom, making wide distribution of the image possible. Mezzotint was most often employed to copy portraits, as this intaglio method offered the most latitude for the tonal subtlety needed to render garment fabrics and facial expression.
There is a mezzotint portrait in the IMA collection that fully exploits the capabilities of the technique to produce a print with a broad range of soft tones with subtle transitions, all due to variable densities of ink. The Portrait of John Masefield was brought from storage to compare with the Block photograph of Weegee. Photomicrographs were taken of two similar image passages on the print and the photograph to see if the visual characteristics of the smoky depth achieved by the photograph background and the deepest black of the mezzotint figure’s jacket would prove to be visually similar under high magnification.
Both details show a dense, unmodulated field of deep black that allows the texture of the underlying paper fibers to show through. In the figure details (Weegee’s hair and John Masefield’s hand), transitions from one tone to another are soft and form is rendered insubstantial under high magnification. Considering that these are completely dissimilar art processes, it is interesting to observe that the two images share a kindred atmospheric sensibility that favors artistic tonal interplay over a need for documentary precision and hard-edged clarity.
The second Weegee portrait is was taken by Weegee himself and radiates a side of the photographer that is commonly remembered by his contemporaries: the playful bon vivant, the unabashed voyeur, the individual unafraid of taking the City by the horns and revealing a gleeful undertone to commonplace persons and events parading through his photographs. This small color Polaroid (4 ¼” x 3 ½”) is highly expressive and extroverted, and these qualities are in harmony with the vibrant color pulsing in glossy exuberance from this photographic print. It is mounted on a presentation card provided by Polaroid with a window mat and advertising by Willoughby’s—the photography supply store that provided access to the Polaroid camera that Weegee evidently found irresistible. Willoughby’s is New York City’s oldest camera and photographic supply store, with extant records of founder Charles Willoughby’s business dating back to 1899. The survival of the commercial presentation card cradling the small Polaroid adds to the appeal of this portrait, placing it in a geographical and historical context that offers an additional layer of meaning in regard to the photographic milieu of this time period.
In 1963, American physicist Edwin Herbert Land developed Polacolor technology, which enabled a full color film to be processed in less than a minute. Weegee worked almost exclusively in black and white, and this small, perhaps impulsive self-portrait (1964) is the only Polaroid and also the only color photograph in the IMA’s Weegee holdings. It is in surprisingly excellent condition, showing clear, intense color, even though “dye stability for Polaroid prints is fairly poor in this period” (P. Messier, IMA Photograph Survey). Our portrait has only a slight hint of the yellowing that is a common occurrence in the white highlights of aging color Polaroids, however the surface is admittedly plagued with numerous oily fingerprints, some of which may have been deposited by Weegee himself.
These two portraits amply reward close observation, and the viewer is easily drawn into tangential musings about Weegee, his legacy, his legend, and the world of 20th c. photography. The IMA is committed to bringing our photograph collections forward for display more often in the coming years in the hope that our visitors will be repeatedly inspired to meaningful contemplation of the art of photography.