Weegee’s October Surprise (part 3): For President

Weegee (1899-1968), [“For President, Nixon”], ca. 1961 (12608.1993)

Weegee (1899-1968), [“For President, Nixon”], ca. 1961 (11572.1993)

Weegee (1899-1968), [“For President, Reagan”], ca. 1968 (11639.1993)

Weegee (1899-1968), [“For President, Rockefeller”], ca. 1966 (11699.1993)

Weegee (1899-1968), [“For President, Wallace”], ca. 1968 (12616.1993)

Accompanying the caricatures, above, made in the 60s, by a photographer in his 60s (about a decade older than his subjects), of American politicians Richard Nixon (1913-1994), Ronald Reagan (1911-2004), Nelson Rockefeller (1908-1979), George Wallace (1919-1998) is a little-known article, below, by Leo Glassman, from the largely-unknown New York Item newspaper. The out-of-this-world Richard Nixon caricature illustrates the article (perhaps the first publication of this image), along with likenesses of Jerry Lewis, Ed Sullivan, British Prime Minister Harold MacMillan, Big Ben, and of course, Weegee. By 1961, Weegee had been making caricatures, or distortions, for over ten years; and he continued for the remaining seven years of his life.

Weegee is the world’s greatest photographer. He is the most remarkable, the most original, and the most ingenious master of the camera alive today. Who said so? Why, Weegee, of course…

On one point there seems to be no disagreement: between his admirers and his detractors: Weegee is the undisputed master of the grotesque and the macabre. Out of his camera comes marching an endless parade of distorted, twisted, misshapen images, each of which seems to be, if not impossible, at least unreal, perhaps the product of a frenetic imagination. But as we study Weegee’s pictures we come to the conclusion that they represent, especially in their collective effect, a portrait of the human race. This is the way Weegee sees the world, and he certainly sees it differently from the way most of us see it. To him life is one great cosmic joke…

Whether he is shooting the Duke and Duchess of Windsor or some nameless drunk or dope-addict on the Bowery, Weegee’s camera strips away the externals of the human personality, penetrates through the pose and posture, the pretense, the mask beneath which people to hide their inner nakedness, their true self in the vain hope that they can somehow deceive their Maker. It is hard to say if this is something Weegee does con­sciously or subconsciously, but the result is what matters. He has a sure instinct, or intuition. when his scalpel-like lens starts probing beneath the surface in search of what is every true artist’s goal: the truth…

Like his work, Weegee’s personality is completely unconventional. “I have no inhibitions, neither has my camera,” he says. This is true. Had he less freedom from emotional restraints he could hardly have given, what some very properly-bred souls call his irreverent treatment of Eisenhower, Nixon and other noted per­sonages on the contemporary scene…

Despite his world-wide fame and his great achieve­ments Weegee’s way of life remains exactly the same as it was back in the days when he was a struggling, starving beginner in a field where highly trained and educated artists of the camera reigned. He remains indifferent to his clothes and still resides in a cold water flat, which is littered with tens of thousands of his pictures. But those who know him will tell you that beneath his rough exterior there beats a warm, sensitive and kindly heart. In middle age his pudgy, pixyish face is lit up by a pair of glowing somber eyes that bear the marks of total absorption in his great love, photography.

Weegee declares in all seriousness that there is nothing he cannot do with his camera. “Whatever the human mind conceives, I can photograph,” he says. This may sound incredible, but Weegee is incredible, and in this space age of ours his boast should not be brushed aside lightly. I am willing to lay odds that the day one of our astronauts goes up to Mars and brings back the first Martian, a picture of the strange visitor will be in the hands of the newspaper even before he lands. And the credit line will read: Photo by Weegee.

by Leo Glassman, New York Item, June 1, 1961

Weegee Wednesday is an occasional series exploring, or just enjoying, the life and work of Weegee.

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