Monday, March 12, 2012

The world of crime & criminals—Rowlandson & Weegee

Monday, March 12, 2012
Loretta reports:

We Nerdy History girls do a lot of compare and contrast between Then and Now, in fashion especially, but also in terms of human behavior.  While in New York City on Saturday,  I went to the International Center of Photography, to see, among other things, Murder is My Business, an exhibition of photographs by the famous mid-20th C tabloid photographer Weegee, one of my personal favorites.  As I walked through the exhibition, oddly enough, I found myself comparing and contrasting these stark black & white photos to the work of one of the great illustrators of the Regency era, Thomas Rowlandson.
Weegee, At an East Side Murder, 1943. © Weegee/International Center of Photography.
Now, let’s be clear here.  We’re not going to find Weegee’s blood and guts tabloid sensationalism in early 19th century art.  But what struck me, once I got past the starkly lit murder victims and pools of blood, were the spectators.  In some photos, we see people reacting to the crime or accident—tearful, horrified, fainting, laughing, smirking, blasé—every shade of emotion.  Looking at a photo of bystanders at a murder scene, it’s startling to see people shrugging it off, or glancing at a corpse over their newspapers, or even grinning at the camera.

Yet I saw as well a direct connection to one of the early 19th century’s chroniclers of London life, Rowlandson—and in particular, his many illustrations dealing with criminal courts and executions.  When executions were done publicly, they attracted mobs of spectators, and in Rowlandson’s works, we see some of the same range of emotions as in the Weegee photographs.  An example is An Execution at Newgate, 1803.    

Thomas Rowlandson, Dr. Syntax Attends the Execution, 1820, courtesy Yale Center for British Art
Weegee captured life in the not-privileged part of New York.  Rowlandson took on life high and low, yet his crowd scenes, at Newgate and elsewhere, show the same variety of behaviors and emotions.  It seemed to me that only the outer trappings—the clothes & the environment, have changed, though not as much as you'd think—but the people?  Not at all, it seems to me.

More about the Weegee exhibition, here and here.


Anonymous said...

I attended the Weegee exhibit in NYC as well, but I didn't see the connection between these photographs and earlier drawings until I read this article. What an insightful observation. Thank you for sharing it.

Julia said...

So much to say on that... I think in "bad" quarters of a city people see violence, drug dealers, prostitution and so on far too early and too often to not grow hardened. Under the worst circumstances, it really becomes a sort of street theater. In other areas, someone can at first be numbed, not know how to react, grin at the camera because s/he just doesn't know what to do... don't get me wrong, I'm not saying that's the explanation, but it's a possible one.

I knew before this that executions were something between public entertainment and education - "see, this is what happens to the fallen ones".

And then of course there's the entertainment value of violence today, from "Faces of Death" to "Saw", and I don't even know which one is ickier. And I cannot even say I'm not part of that; I loved "Troy" and other movies depicting sword fights. Oh, and recently I saw a fresco in a church, a few hundred years old, that someone had _carved his name in with a pocket knife_ and that's the moment when I wonder whether corporal punishment is really _all_ bad.

So, education and upbringing once again? I could imagine that there were people at all times who were appalled by public executions and punishments, just as there always was the opposite.

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