Weegee Wednesday: “The opera shot got the most laughs”

PM, June 2, 1944, p. 12

PM, June 2, 1944, pp. 12-13

71 years ago yesterday:

A Weegee Gets Attention At Museum of Modern Art
The big picture at the lower right is the center of attraction in Weegee’s section of the Art in Progress photo exhibition now on view at the Museum of Modern Art. It shows Mrs. George Washington Kavanaugh and Lady Decies outside of the Metropolitan Opera House – and the eloquent facial reaction of another woman. The other pictures on this page were snapped by Weegee as visitors to the photo exhibition looked at his pictures. Four out of his five exhibits have appeared in PM. The opera shot got the most laughs, Weegee reports. PM, June 2, 1944, pp. 12

Weegee, [Installation view of Weegee’s exhibition in “Art in Progress” at the Museum of Modern Art, New York], 1944 (19988.1993)

Weegee, Weegee by Weegee, 1961

Another Weegee-eye-view of the “Art in Progress” exhibition reveals why it’s not surprising that “the opera shot got the most laughs,” four out of five photos were not amusing. Almost all of the photos feature “eloquent facial reactions of women.” Only 60%, 3 out of 5, were stereotypical crime and fire shots. Just to mansplain this, speaking of stereotypes, if we look closely at the five shots, with the exception of “Their First Murder,” seven out of nine adults are female, the pair of men are a police officer and a wounded sailor. A pair of people are wealthy, upper class, or one percenters, and the rest are middle and/or working class. Of the five shots, one was made in 1939, a pair in 1941, and a pair in 1943. Three out of five were published on PM as news stories. Of course “The Critic” didn’t appear in PM when it was a news story in November 1943. (To give a Weegee attention on moma.org: three of the five prints are on MoMA’s website: My Man, 95.1943, Tenement Fire, 96.1943, Woman Shot from Canon, New York, 696.1943.) It’s remarkable that an entire page in a daily newspaper was devoted to Weegee’s photographic review of his own photographs, of people enjoying his own contribution to what was at the time the largest exhibition in the history of the Museum of Modern Art.
To summarize and quote from a press release: The “Art in Progress” exhibition at MoMA, May 24 – October 8, 1944, was the fifteenth anniversary show and was the first time that all the departments (including photography, film, posters, industrial design, art for young people, etc.) of the museum were represented. “Art in Progress,” planned and directed by Monroe Wheeler, was the museum’s 258th exhibition. The photography section was on the first floor and directed by Nancy Newhall.

The museum has drawn upon its own collection of more than two thousand examples to present a brief survey of a century’s achievement. Creative photography has been divided into three categories: the abstract image, the lyric image, the objective image… The dominant intention of a man’s [or woman’s] lifework has generally been the basis for placing him [or her] in one category or another, although the chief twentieth-century photographers have contributed powerfully to all three… The Collection is already the most important and representative owned by any American museum. Although its first item was acquired eleven years ago… The photographers whose work is shown include Berenice Abbott, Ansel Adams, Eugene Atget, Mathew Brady, Dr. Harold Edgerton, Walker Evans, David Octavius Hill, Helen Levitt, Lisette Model, Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, Barbara Morgan, Eadweard Muybridge, Dr. Eliot Porter, Man Ray, Edward Steichen, Ralph Steiner, Alfred Stieglitz, Paul Strand, William Henry Fox Talbot, William Vandivert, Weegee, and Edward Weston. MoMA, Art in Progress, press release, May 24, 1944.

“Four out of his five exhibits have appeared in PM.” What would those be? Perhaps a pair at the Photo League and a pair at MoMA. (Not a bad start for a “high-school” dropout; crime and seamy-side-of-life photojournalist.) What was the fifth exhibit?
1. Murder is My Business, August 13 – September 6, 1941, Photo League
2. Murder is My Business 2nd Edition, September 6 – September 27, 1941, Photo League
3. Action Photography, August 18 – September 19, 1943, MoMA
4. Art in Progress, May 24 – October 8, 1944, MoMA

The progress of art: In Weegee by Weegee (1961) Weegee writes about the significance of MoMA and 1944 in the genesis of Naked City (1945): “In the Spring of 1944, the Museum of Modern Art invited me to give a lecture. I accepted. After the lecture, a lot of people came over to tell me that I should have a book. I thought that this was a good idea. It had never occurred to me, but it was a good idea.” Weegee by Weegee, p. 81. Although as Anthony Lee writes in Weegee and Naked City, this was not accurate: “But in fact, the idea of collecting and publishing his pictures was raised three years earlier by Louis Stettner at Murder is my Business. ‘I suggest that he should write a book illustrated with his photographs,’ Stettner had written in Weegee’s comment book for that show.” (Anthony Lee, and Richard Meyer, Weegee and Naked City, p. 98.) In Weegee and Naked City, both Anthony Lee and Richard Meyer write compellingly about the significance of the two MoMA exhibitions in the evolution of Weegee’s photos from large, lurid halftones in tabloids (disposable and/or recyclable) to alluring, mounted and framed gelatin silver photographs (valuable) in cultural institutions…

Oh, almost forgot, like a great B-Side of a 45, or Staten Island salad days, the story on page 13 of PM, June 2, 1944 is: Staten Island Girl Scouts Turn Farmettes, with photos by the wondrous Arthur Leipzig. The photo captions: “Under the leadership of Mrs. Herman A. Meyer (right center), wife of the Pastor of Immanuel Lutheran Church of Staten Island, these Girl Scouts of Troop 5-41 are helping Uncle Sam win the war by raising crops. The land was donated to them by a farmer who couldn’t get sufficient help to care for all his acreage.”
“Lucielle Woelle and May Leadley pull the marker which makes rows for the planting of seeds. The gardens have been scientifically planned and they will raise three crops during the summer. Each girl is responsible for a plot 20 by 20 feet. They’ll grow beans, beets, cabbage, onions, carrots, spinach, tomatoes and lettuce.”
The big picture at the middle of the twentieth century was that this story was published four days before D-Day…

Weegee Wednesday is an occasional series exploring the life and work of Weegee.

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1 Response to Weegee Wednesday: “The opera shot got the most laughs”

  1. Pingback: “An End To Liberty” | Fans in a Flashbulb

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