There is the man sprawled on the sidewalk outside a café in a pool of blood with a gun and a top hat beside him. There is the body of William Hessler, “trussed in a self-strangulation knot and stabbed 48 times with an ice pick…found stuffed into a small trunk and dumped in a lot.”
There is the candy store owner found dead on a Lower East Side rooftop, with a thin seam of blood coming from his open mouth, as tenants in the neighboring building gather on their own roof to gape. The mobster shot in the doorway of the Little Italy restaurant, the longshoreman murdered outside the sports bar and the passenger that got ejected from the car that burst into flames after it crashed on Third Avenue, right outside a movie theater that happened to be showing a film called, The Joy of Living. These are all photos in the Weegee show at the International Center of Photography, in New York City, which runs through September 2. Weegee, an Austrian originally named Arthur Fellig, came to America at age 11, in 1909, and went on to become the most celebrated tabloid photographer of his day. His beat was exclusively death. “Murder is my business,” Wegee famously said, claiming that he photographed more than 5,000 murders over the course of his career.
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Weegee grew up in the immigrant-packed tenements of the Lower East Side, in New York City. His father peddled hats and was also a part-time rabbi. Weegee first worked as a passport photographer then a commercial photography assistant and finally a darkroom assistant, which involved menial janitorial work and led to the nickname Squeegee Boy—it later became Weegee. At age 35 he quit to become a freelance tabloid photographer, a risky move in that time. The exhibit features a detailed recreation of the spartan Manhattan room Wegee rented right across the street from police headquarters. There is a simple cot with a few cheap blankets and walls covered in newspaper clippings—his own. Beside his bed on the floor are a pair of shined black shoes and his gigantic camera. “His camera bulbs and tripod are all at hand,” reads the exhibit, “to be grabbed up the instant news of a story comes in or the gong rings out a two or three alarm fire.”
Many of Weegee’s photos are as much of the spectators and passersby who flocked to the crime scenes as they are of the victims. It is an interesting portent for what was to become, for little did Weegee know his trashy tabloid shots would someday be shown in fancy art galleries. Photos of the dead have increasingly become an acceptable form in mainstream galleries. Virginia photographer Sally Mann takes pictures of dead bodies in various stages of decomposition, using an archaic form of photography known as wet-collodion to create haunting painting-like images. Although the governor of Virginia once denounced her work as “lewd” and “outrageous”, her prints now go for as much as $50,000 at top galleries like Gagosian.
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Just up the road, in Washington D.C., The National Portrait Gallery is presently showing a death-themed exhibit. To mark the 150th anniversary of the Civil War the gallery is hosting a series of four exhibits, one each year. The first exhibition, which opened last April and runs through March 18, recounts the death of Colonel Elmer E. Ellsworth, the first Union officer to be killed in the war. Ellsworth was a good friend of both Abe Lincoln and his wife, Mary Todd. He commanded a regiment of New York Fire Zouaves, a volunteer regiment inspired by the French Zouaves, a light infantry regiment in the French Army that fought admirably in the Crimean War. Ellsworth and the Zouaves participated in the invasion of Northern Virginia on May 24, 1861. Ellsworth was killed outside Alexandria, with an English-made double-barreled shotgun wielded by a local innkeeper named James Jackson. News of his death made headlines across the country. He became something a martyr, and an inspiration for other Northerners to march off to war. Ellsworth’s face was put on stationery and in a series of memorial lithographs.
Lincoln was particularly distressed over his death. Ellsworth’s body was brought to the Washington Navy Yard where both he and Mary Todd met it and wept. Lincoln arranged for the funeral to be held in the East Room of the White House. Thousands of mourners came in to view his corpse. Mary Todd made a floral wreath with Ellsworth’s picture in the center and placed it on his casket. The National Portrait Gallery show will feature prints, lithographs and several artifacts from the time, including the gun used to kill Ellsworth.