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Art review: 'Naked Hollywood: Weegee in Los Angeles' at MOCA

January 12, 2012 |  3:00 pm

Weegee
“Hollywood, the last refuge of geniuses and scoundrels, welcomed me with open arms,” the photographer known as Weegee (born Usher Fellig) once wrote of his arrival in Los Angeles in 1947.

It may well have been true. Fresh off the success of his 1945 publication "Naked City," the collection of New York tabloid and crime photographs that helped to make him “Weegee the Famous” (as he humbly called himself), he had reason to identify with the promise of Tinseltown. Sorting truth from hyperbole in any of Weegee’s statements is largely futile, however; he also declared that all native Angelenos are zombies who “drink formaldehyde instead of coffee and have no sex organs.” 

In any case, Hollywood could scarcely have known what it was getting. The work that Weegee produced in his four years here — the subject of “Naked Hollywood: Weegee in Los Angeles,” at the Museum of Contemporary Art — builds on much of what made Naked City great:  the wit, the irreverence, the keen eye for incriminating detail. At the same time, it veers into very strange territory indeed. Tackling the locus of celebrity culture while having recently begun to experiment with low-fi photographic effects proved a spirituous confluence in the career of such a character. The result is a playful, bawdy, gleefully caustic portrait of L.A. that comes as a breath of fresh air in this earnest season of civic self-reflection, illuminating one quality in short supply among Pacific Standard Time exhibitions: satire. 

Curated by Richard Meyer, the show begins with the one segment of society for whom Weegee seems to have felt a genuine respect: the gawker. “The worshippers of stars are a heroic clan,” he declared, and he captures among the ranks that crowded the sidewalks of movie premieres a hero’s full range of joy and anguish. Showgirls also seem to elicit sympathy, as do drunks, nude mannequins, animals who win Oscars, and anyone who happens to fall asleep in public. 

The figure for whom Weegee has no sympathy is the celebrity. He photographs them eating, leering, bending over. He cuts them out of pictures, catches them from the back, or obscures them  behind posts or microphones. Using the aforementioned retinue of effects — wavy lenses, darkroom tricks — he chops them in half, enlarges or distorts conspicuous body parts and grotesquely alters their highly lucrative faces. 

The effect is frequently aided by Weegee’s brilliant instinct for juxtaposition and sequence: the rump of a horse opposite the rump of Jane Russell; a backstage chalkboard tracking winners at the Oscars  opposite a chalkboard tracking acts at a strip club. (It is an aspect of Weegee’s output that both exhibition and catalog rightly emphasize, including numerous examples of the books and periodicals— generally the less respectable sort — in which his photo essays originally appeared.)

Meyer, a professor of art history at USC, makes some apology in his essay for “the low humor and irredeemable crudeness” that characterizes Weegee’s late work, fretting particularly about his “unrepentant...ogling of the female body.” The qualification, clearly a response to the critical ambivalence this work has tended to elicit, has an academic ring that is probably unnecessary and possibly ill founded.  By no stretch of the means could Weegee be called a feminist, but he betrays in this work a shrewd eye for the many ways in which women’s bodies were — and are — exploited by the machinery of celebrity. Whether he was in the business of exploiting them as well may be the wrong question to ask a satirist. Outside the realm of academic discourse — whether among artists or the general public — my guess is that most will get the joke, perhaps even more than it was got at the time.

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More art reviews from the Los Angeles Times 

-- Holly Myers

"Naked Hollywood: Weegee in Los Angeles," Museum of Contemporary Art, 250 S. Grand Ave., Los Angeles, (213) 626-6222, through Feb. 27. Closed Tuesday and Wednesday.

Above: Detail of Weegee's "Hollywood Premiere," circa 1951. Credit: Weegee/International Center of Photography/Getty Images

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