When Arthur Fellig, the New York street photographer known as Weegee, moved to Los Angeles in 1947 to become a technical adviser on The Naked City, the film-noir classic named after his 1945 book of photos, he had big Hollywood dreams. Like many aspiring stars before and after, he didn’t quite find the magical landscape of the movies, and he declared that Hollywood was Newark, New Jersey, with palm trees.
“Being in proximity to the dream factory didn’t necessarily make everyday life in L.A. any more cinematic,” says Richard Meyer, curator of “Naked Hollywood: Weegee in Los Angeles,” at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, the first-ever museum exhibition devoted to works created by Weegee during his years in Southern California. Part of “Pacific Standard Time,” the massive, 60-institution celebration of the L.A. art scene from 1945 through 1980, the show—and the catalogue, published by Rizzoli—will feature around 200 black-and-white photos that cast light on the dark side of Hollywood glamour.
Weegee was famous in New York for grisly crime-scene photos. He earned his nickname from his job as a darkroom assistant, or “squeegee boy,” for the New York Times or perhaps from his Ouija board–like knack for predicting events—he would show up immediately after fires, suicides, and murders (no doubt with help from his portable police-band radio). This street sensibility influenced his L.A. photos as well. “Instead of just photographing the stars, he photographed all of the people waiting for the stars along Hollywood Boulevard,” says Meyer, “including their awestruck expressions when the stars arrived or their crestfallen emotions when they don’t get an autograph they’ve been waiting hours for.”
While other photographers clambered for straight-ahead shots of Grace Kelly and Joan Crawford, Weegee turned his lens on signs for pawnshops and funeral parlors. “In his own fairly dark way, he’s trying to make a commentary about the gap between Hollywood fantasy and the reality of fandom,” Meyer says. He would also take photos of stars with food in their mouths and distorted portraits shot with an elastic lens.
“Virtually none of these photographs was intended to be framed and displayed in a museum,” says Meyer. The images in the MOCA show (which runs from November 13 through February 27) are matted in a way that leaves visible the original crop marks and handwritten directions for printers of pulp and girlie magazines. One photo includes a suggestion to bring out Kathryn Grayson’s cleavage. “I didn’t want Weegee to be cleaned up too much,” the curator adds.
Weegee might not have found onscreen glory during his time in Los Angeles, but the man who called himself the world’s greatest photographer definitely added to his own legend. “He is always the star through the lens of his own camera,” says Meyer, “and that speaks to the way in which celebrity is produced in part through the relentless promotion of one’s own image.”