Last Summer in New York I took a trip to the International Center of Photography near Times Square to see a retrospective exhibition of Weegee’s work. Although the title of the show is “Murder is my Business” I find there is much more to Weegee’s legacy than oily prints of bloodied corpses. The deaths and disasters, photographed after chasing the police radio messages relayed to his van, are a frontispiece to a surprising array of interests which included film making. Weegees van also doubled as a darkroom and he would photograph and print, on the run as it were, therefore ensuring he would be first to hit the newspapers. It could be argued that he ‘invented’ photojournalism. More interesting than the dead gangsters and hapless car accident victims, are the photographs that resulted from his scouting of the scene as he arrived; before the other press photographers and often before the police themselves. I imagine him stepping over the body itself looking for the best angle to show the trickle or pool of blood as it leaks into the gutter. His keen eye for an environmental photograph resulted in some fascinating portrayals of onlookers, bystanders and witnesses and one, called “Their First Murder” shows a group of school children just happen to be exiting classes for the day. Weegee turns his camera on their reaction to the scene in front of them. Each child’s face is variously contorted: a woman faints in the centre of the frame and a boy laughs out loud throwing his head back (I think he’s laughing – it’s one of those sounds you can get from a photo sometimes) one girl carries an expression of horror mixed with what seems to me a kind of pleasure…although the picture is black and white she looks flushed… and with her mouth slightly open her gaze is crazed, greedy, sexual. Another girl, slightly blurred in the near left foreground, seems to be in a trance, looking at and through the camera. She seems to be asking a question.
An installation recreating Weegee’s bedroom hold no real fascination for me as the photograph, which inspires it, is displayed nearby and also shows Weegee on the bed reading a newspaper, containing no doubt, one of his picture-stories. On the main floor of the Institute is a small show called ‘A Brief History of Photography’ which has some real gems on show, a great Helen Lewitt street shot, and one of my favourites, Miroslav Tichy, whom I had seen as the main exhibition at ICP the last time I visited New York.
Miroslav Tichy is a real original, and his personal story is a fascinating one. An ‘Anti – Photographer’; he made his own cameras from cardboard, tin cans and old bottle bottoms for lenses – polished up with toothpaste. He was considered crazy in the community in which he lived and walked the streets wearing an unbelievably tattered coat. No one believed that his cameras worked, that he was recording them! His images hastily printed into cheap photographic paper are out of focus, mysterious enigmas. Often featuring young women and girl’s limbs, resting or walking. He would also draw on top of his work; to reinforce aspects of line and define certain areas. The works are undeniably the work of a voyeur – often shot from vantage points; hidden behind structures like fences and usually at a distance, one gets the sense that this man is sexually and sensually charged.
A display cabinet of various cameras he made provided a real insight as to just how primitive a thing a camera really is, or rather, can be. Just a box made as light-tight as possible, a hole to let some light in and some light sensitive material to record the image makes a camera. Tichy’s hand-made variations are mutant objects, they are homemade sculpture, the kind of camera we will all be using in a post-nuclear landscape. In a world returned to analogue.
It is refreshing to see Tichy’s foggy, sensual pictures against the glossy, pin sharp glamour of much photography in the show. Pin sharp clarity and sharpness in a picture is sometimes like a blade held to the throat of the viewer and at those times it seems there is no way in, no forward, deepening movement can be made and no possible communion with the mysterious stuff that can float behind the surface. Tichy’s photographs however, feel like welcoming portals to another world, another door to what can be seen behind. They are the opposite of the taut, glossy and inpenetrable membrane. It is the blurry, crappy ‘anti-technique’ that allows this to happen: while eschewing the technology of the modern camera and the ‘rules’ of printing, his peculiar character and the obsessive practice of his ‘bad’ photography has gained a contemporary glamour and perhaps resonates with those caught up in the exhausting chatter surrounding endless kit upgrades, digital techniques and ‘how to’ articles in magazines.