Los Angeles

Weegee, The Gold Painted Stripper, ca. 1950, black-and-white photograph, 9 3/8 x 7 3/4".

Weegee, The Gold Painted Stripper, ca. 1950, black-and-white photograph, 9 3/8 x 7 3/4".

Weegee

The Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA)

Weegee, The Gold Painted Stripper, ca. 1950, black-and-white photograph, 9 3/8 x 7 3/4".

Chatting with Peter Sellers on the set of Dr. Strangelove in 1963, Weegee (aka Arthur Fellig) recounts his summer: “It’s been a strange one. . . . I was sent by a magazine to photograph famous photographers. . . . Of course, I included myself.” Though the conversation happened in London, it nevertheless underscores the photographer’s particular relationship to fame and therefore the premise of “Naked Hollywood: Weegee in Los Angeles,” which showcases the Eastern European–born, though quintessentially New York journalist’s stint in Tinseltown. Trading grizzly crime scenes for the soundstages and back rooms of the “dream factory,” Weegee penetrated the glossy surface of Hollywood to document the unsightly scaffolding that, between 1947 and 1951, was making it all possible, along with its lurid cast of characters: gossip columnists and topless dancers, nameless starlets and screaming fans, studio heads and silver-screen icons (in various stages of glamorous composure or disarray), and even an award-winning mule.

Following Naked City, his 1945 photo monograph chronicling the underbelly of the Big Apple, Weegee released Naked Hollywood, 1953, which featured his relatively bloodless but no less lascivious snaps of LA. Yet the bounty of work on view in this show—including never-before-exhibited proofs and working prints as well as how-to photo pamphlets and pages shot for girlie rags—exceeds the ambitions of that pulpy tome. In this selection, much credit is due to the expertise of Richard Meyer, who, aided by assistant curator Jason Goldman, forged a coherent path—via thematic threads such as “Stars,” “Showgirls,” and “Bitparts”—through what must be a spectacularly unwieldy trove of material.

Through Meyer’s filter, we were given Weegee as the ultimate outsider-insider saboteur—both a master satirist able to deconstruct fame while savoring the spoils of the famous and an elusive figure, with a penchant for bathroom humor, who relished occupying the fringes even while training the spotlight on his own myth. Perhaps this was most poignantly evident in the circa 1951 series “American Tragedy: no autograph,” in which a fan’s desire for a star encounter was tracked from hopeful anticipation to ensuing heartbreak. Distilling the effect of the culture industry on the individual body via the idiosyncratic contortions of a single fan girl, the shot yields an afterimage that is difficult to shake. Larger-than-life figures were also cut to bite-size pieces when Weegee zoomed in close on the stars. Employing the techniques of tabloid journalism, he sought out the grotesque—picturing famous actresses while eating, or experimenting with multiple exposures and special lenses so that bodies appear distorted, faces like mutant caricatures.

If Walter Benjamin noted how the photographic process erodes the aura of the original work of art, bringing it, through repetition, closer to the masses, Weegee, we might imagine, embraced this process to the fullest, deflating the aura of the image-conscious high and spreading their refracted likenesses low and wide with unabashed urgency. As one took in “Naked Hollywood,” it was impossible not to draw a line forward to later “art” agents of tabloid journalism—e.g., the Pictures Generation (several of Weegee’s “elastic lens” Marilyns on view here were lent by Cindy Sherman). Though not quite a revisionist history, this exhibition caused us to recalibrate our focus, if only just a couple degrees, to accommodate the wider-than-previously expected frame of Weegee’s ever-dazzling spectacle.

Franklin Melendez