Jan 27, 2010

The gambit of proximity

Weegee's method was proximity. He was, we are told, "proud of being the only photographer to have obtained the privilege of installing a police radio in his famous Chevrolet.” When he wasn’t out on the street, Weegee was in the police station. He was as close as he could be. “Here’s what I would do,” he said, “when a story came out over the police teletype, I would go to it.”

Proximity also pervades the myth of Weegee, with constant references to “Weegee’s World,” his city, and his people. Proximity marks and makes his style, with the iconic photos taken from the viewpoint and position of a detective, showing corpses on the street, for example, the way an officer would see them squatting at the scene, and from the viewpoint of the crowd of onlookers, from the middle of the mass of people who lived in the slum world where tenements burnt down and suit-wearing men were “offed” with some regularity. He has been called “a great photographieur of backs": this is his style, and it’s meant to be taken and is taken as testament to the great value of his photographs, which is to say the way they were, in the words of Robert Capa, “close enough.”

Weegee himself thought the value of his work was directly related to his proximity to the subject of his photography, saying, “When you find yourself beginning to feel a bond between yourself and the people you photograph, when you laugh and cry with their laughter and tears, you will know you are on the right track."

Close proximity, especially with regards to violence and death, is the first and primary value and criterion of documentary photography. This goes unquestioned.

Close proximity also means a loss of perspective, though. In pretending to be unmediated and have no perspective, photography with the priority of proximity becomes either a thing of romanticization or trauma.

In Weegee’s work capturing the life of the streets, for example, everything seems to be either romantic or traumatic (or both). These are his only two modes, and he oscillates between then. His photographs of kids and bums, hookers and late-night lovers in park and diners are all very romantic. They could have served as models for Norman Rockwell. On the other hand, his crime photos are very dark, portraying a world of death and betrayal, casual murder and corpses on cold concrete. These photos in fact did serve as models for film noir. There’s no in between for Weegee. It’s one or the other. And sometimes it’s one right after the other: In one story, Weegee takes a photograph of bum sleeping on the street, walks away, hears the man run over by a car, and returns to take a photo of the fatal accident.

There's a loss of nuance here, when we are only left with these two modes. A loss of explanatory power. This is the gamble of the myth of what it means for a photo to be "true." This is the gambit of proximity: try to get close enough to be true in a way that means unmediated, uninterpreted, unquestioned and simple, just truly true and present, but risk maybe getting stuck in wild oscillations of mood and two too-simple modes and losing the ability to capture complexity, the ability to explain, and the ability to be analytical about the photos taken.