Nostalgia is gripping New York. Affluence and glitter incubate wistfulness for a grittier, raunchier city. In a recent memoir, the writer James Woolcott tenderly describes the “lively decay” of Manhattan when he arrived in 1972; he uses the word “squalor” the way Michael Jackson used “bad”: as a term of approbation. New Yorkers of a certain age and regretful disposition survey today’s family- and media-friendly Times Square and shake their heads, nursing memories of idling pimpmobiles and XXX movie theatres. Though fewer residents remember it, the gangster era of the 1930s, too, has a certain Runyonesque romance.
A pair of gruesomely seductive exhibitions caters to these yearnings for urban mayhem. Weegee: Murder Is My Business, at the International Center of Photography, specialises in the flashlit gore of the Depression, the glory days of wise guys, stoolpigeons, bookies, hustlers and hit men.
Police Work, an anthology of images by Magnum photographer Leonard Freed at the Museum of the City of New York, opens a soot-smeared window on to the more recent age of graffiti-bedecked subway cars, chalk outlines of corpses, sleazy massage parlours and steel-curtained bodegas. Freed could practically have been shooting stills for Serpico, Taxi Driver, Dog Day Afternoon and all those unflinching films of the 1970s.
Weegee careered along the gangster-clogged avenues of New York on behalf of dailies thirsty for fresh suicides, fires and murders. (He earned his nickname because only a Ouija board could account for his ability to arrive first at a scene of disaster.) He toggled between his cop friends and the mobsters – Bugsy Siegel, Lucky Luciano, and Legs Diamond – whose camaraderie he cultivated, dubbing himself “the official photographer of Murder, Inc”. He bragged about having logged 5,000 murders, which the ICP show’s curator Brian Wallis calls “a count that is perhaps only slightly exaggerated”.
Wallis digs into the museum’s cavernous archive of more than 20,000 Weegee prints with an eye to the contrasts between his style and the techniques of straight police photographs and routine tabloid fare. Wallis has also dug out the pages of the old dailies themselves, where Weegee’s lurid sensationalism looks much more muted than you might expect.
“Murder on the Roof” records the shooting of Joseph Gallichio, 28, owner of a “candy store” in the Bronx. On August 14 1941, PM Daily reported: “Last night, on the roof of 12 E. 106th St. he was murdered beside his pigeon cote. Five bullets entered his body. Police say he once sold narcotics.” Evidentiary photos record the bloodied but beautifully dressed body and the precise spot it was discovered. But Weegee understood crime as a form of showbusiness. He treated the scene as a rough and ready proscenium, then turned his operatic lens to onlookers perched on another roof, looking down.
He amplified that theatrical metaphor in “Balcony Seats at a Murder” (his own title), where gawkers mass on fire escapes and jostle at windows to get a glimpse of a tiny body in a blackened doorway. In “An Eastside Murder” the victim disappears altogether. The flash explodes on a crowd of the curious, the avid, the apathetic and the gleeful. Perhaps Weegee saw in those stirred and shaken faces the cocktail of his own psyche: three parts voyeur, one part compassionate witness.
Freed’s photos of the ’70s approach the police more sympathetically, but never besmirch them with the stain of glamour. As the city teetered on the edge of bankruptcy and its mean streets nursed disorder, the Brooklyn-born photographer trailed the men of the NYPD from precinct houses to prisons to suburban homes, humanising them for a public accustomed to clichés.
He didn’t shield his camera from brutality. In one troubling image, two white officers pin a grimacing black man. One grabs his arm; the other rams an elbow at his throat. Yet Freed penned a mitigating caption: “A family argument. When the man went for the woman, the police jumped him.”
While Weegee embellished already outrageous moments, Freed savoured the devastatingly matter-of-fact tone of New York crime. But even he couldn’t completely elude sensationalism. In one dramatic picture of a grocery store burglary, Freed spotlights the victim’s splayed limbs, but pushes the figure into the corner of his shot. The violated cash register takes centre stage. Freed sums up the moral chaos of those dark days with a Haiku-like locution: “Homicide in a food store. The clerk was shot dead for the few dollars in the till.”
It’s bracing to see this stuff at a time when the murder rate in New York has fallen to a fraction of what it was a generation ago. Weegee and Freed helped shape the way their world would be remembered, but their relentless displays of savagery resist romanticisation. The two exhibitions remind us that in cities, the flip side of grittiness is appalling violence. And the only way to be nostalgic for that is to temper wistfulness with denial.
Weegee: Murder Is My Business, until September 2, www.icp.org;
Police Work, until March 18, www.mcny.org