Tanvi Misra is a staff writer for CityLab covering immigrant communities, housing, economic inequality, and culture. She also authors Navigator, a weekly newsletter for urban explorers (subscribe here). Her work also appears in The Atlantic, NPR, and BBC.
A new exhibit recalls when the photographer Weegee turned his lens on the audience.
In 1940, photographer Weegee, also known as Arthur Fellig, turned his lens on New York moviegoing audience, and the result is probably more interesting than whatever was happening on screen. Fourteen of the photos from this series are being featured together for first time in an exhibition at the Bow Tie Chelsea Cinemas in New York, and are otherwise housed at the Weegee archive at the International Center of Photography.
"To see them next to each is ... very striking and powerful," says Pauline Vermare, the curator of the exhibit.
In the 1930s, Weegee worked as a freelance photographer in New York, and his photos appeared in publications such as the Herald-Tribune, the Daily News, the Post, and the Sun. He became most well-known for his stark black-and-white tabloid photos of crime scenes, urban happenings, and nightlife in the city. In the 1940s, he started showcasing his work in books and museums as well; his series capturing the faces in New York's darkened theater exemplifies this departure from news photography.
In the series, Weegee freezes the expressions of ordinary people against the darkened movie theater on infrared film. The result is slightly disconcerting, says Vermare. His subjects are laughing adults and transfixed children; we don't know details about who these people are or what they're reacting to on-screen. The series also includes photos of less devoted spectators—a napping man, a kissing couple—that seem both comical and a tad voyeuristic.
That's what's so striking about Weegee's style—there's intimacy and mystery to the photos that makes some of them "a bit creepy," says Vermare. See for yourself in some of the photos from the exhibit:
All images are copyrighted by Weegee, and used with permission of the International Center of Photography.