The Jewish photographers in New York City’s Photo League transformed street photography into interactive documentary photography. Bubley and Weegee, two famous photographers that nurtured their talents in the League, were able to capture moments in time that embodied society’s themes during the 1940s and 1950s. More specifically, these two prodigies allowed their audience to view into New York’s diverse and attractive culture. Both artists, in the 1940s and 1950s, were able to masterfully capture a major piece of New York City’s cukture which was its youth. The youth they photographed epitomized a new genration’s mindset while growing up in New York. Although Bubley and Weegee took different approaches to capturing the realities of New York City, the knowledge and emotion that can be taken from their works are timeless.
Weegee became famous as a freelancer and was able to take pictures without restrictions. Weegee, after immigrating to America in 1909, immediately sought out photographical jobs around New York City. His early interest in photography allowed him to better his skills at a young age. As he grew older, he worked for many different institutions, most of which were news outlits. While working for the news, he became interested in exposing New York City’s hushed criminal reputation, as opposed to unoriginally photographing the city as one of opportunity. Weegee would listen to the police frequency on the radio, which would give him the opportunity to find crime scenes to photograph. Weegee would not just take any photograph though. When he would walk down the street with his friends, they would point out a few drunk men laying in the gutter for Weegee to take pictures of. Weegee would reply, ‘They lack character.” So, even a drunk had to be a masterpiece. Weegee’s fascination with New York City’s unfriendly side gave him the opportunity to exploit New York’s criminal culture.
One of Weegee’s famous photographs was of the wide-eyed adolescent onlookers of a hideous crime scene. “Faces in the Crowd” immediately draws its audience in with the expressions of the young boys and the crowd behind them. It speaks to how their generation was upfront and up close to the atrocities going on in the world at that time. For these boys, the horror in front of them is the crime, but as a generation, the terror surrounding them is the aftertaste of World War I and the beginning of the Cold War. The events on the streets and in the world subtly pushed young men to grow up fast and become independent. Another interesting characteristic of the photo is that the boys are dressed in leather jackets and have gel in their hair. The combination of their outfits and being in front of the crowd, intuitively give them a punk-like, in your face aura. Also, it is telling of the clothing styles of their time. Weegee was able to photograph the culture of young men growing up in New York City through these youthful faces.
Bubley also liked to incorporate the dark side of people in her photographs. In contrast, Bubley’s invention of noir in photography brought a whole new perspective to the sexuality and intensity an audience can feel from a photograph. Growing up in rural Wisconsin, Bubley was intrigued by magazines and their pictures of the world. One of the first magazines that drew her attention was Life. Bubley, similar to Weegee, was fascinated by photography at a young age. When Bubley was a senior in high school, she was editor-in-chief of her yearbook and developed a passion for photojournalism. Furthermore, Bubley’s quiet personality led her to enjoy taking intimate photographs of ordinary people. When Bubley wanted to begin her professional career, she had trouble finding work because companies did not want to hire a woman photographer. This largely influenced Bubley’s interest in capturing the noir aspect of women in photographs. With all of these elements, Bubley was able to photograph the reality of her subjects without any fabrications.
Esther Bubley’s photograph of “A Student at Woodrow Wilson High School” is an intersection of her and the Photo League’s ideals. It is a photo angled up at a young good-looking girl, looking out into the abyss. Bubley consistently showed women as sexy, mysterious, and fierce to her audience, while the Photo League provided honest documentary photographs. The woman’s free flowing hair and subtle grin tease and attract the audience. Moreover, not knowing where or what she is looking at adds mystique to the photograph. In addition, the light focused on her face joined with the girl’s determined eyes allude to the woman’s strong confidence. The photograph is simple in that it has one subject and a bland background, yet complex with the woman’s expression and stature. The simplicity comes from her mentorship at the Photo League, while the complexity stems from her own invention of noir. Like Weegee, Bubley had the talent to create an image for the new generation’s women in the 1940s and 1950s.
In all, the Photo League produced photographers that were able to take photos that encompassed societal themes, so much so, they have become iconic images representing their time periods. Bubley was able to recreate the image of coming-of-age women in the 1940s and 1950s through her noir lens. On the other hand, Weegee’s obsession with the evil side of New York City allowed him to portray the young men of the 1940s and 1950s as rebels and independent. People today, when thinking about the youth in the 40s and 50s, refer back to their photographs because they are aesthetic visualizations into their time periods. Both artists similarly used their education from the Photo League, but made their photographs special by putting their own values into them. Weegee and Bubley, with the help from the Photo League, greatly influenced the way photojournalism and documentary photography can be used as a tool to record societal changes.
“Introduction.” Esther Bubley, photojournalist: Biographical Sketch. N.p., n.d. Web. 22 Oct. 2013. <http://www.estherbubley.com/bio_main.htm>.
Loke, Margarett. “PHOTOGRAPHY REVIEW; Documenting America, From Industrial Behemoth to Sweet Innocent.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 17 Aug. 2001. Web. 22 Oct. 2013. <http://www.nytimes.com/2001/08/17/arts/photography-review-documenting-america-industrial-behemoth-sweet-innocent.html>.
Anthony W. Lee, “Human Interest Stories,” in Weegee and Naked City, 63-108.
Richard Meyer, “Learning from Low Culture,” in Weegee and Naked City, 13-62.
Paula Rabinowitz, “Already Framed: Esther Bubley Invents Noir,” in Black & White & Noir (2002), 25-59.
Photo League – http://www.thejewishmuseum.org/exhibitions/photoleague
BOMB Article – http://bombsite.com/issues/20/articles/941
World War I – http://www.history.com/topics/world-war-i
Cold War – http://www.history.com/topics/cold-war
Life Magazine – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Life_(magazine)
“Faces in the Crowd” – http://www.icp.org/museum/exhibitions/unknown-weegee
“A Student at Woodrow Wilson High School” – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Esther_Bubley,_A_student_at_Woodrow_Wilson_High_School,_Washington_DC,_1943.jpg
Weegee Self-Portrait – http://emuseum.icp.org/view/people/asitem/id/171
Bubley Self-Portrait – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:EB_mirror.JPG
Weegee interview – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iP4Y_fAvOg
Bubley interview – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cC1dOLfP2Ic