If you’ve lived in Los Angeles, you’ve come in contact with one or two paparazzi situations, where a celebrity is being stalked or actively pursued before you, flashbulbs exploding all around them and questions demanding answers as if the fate of the world is on the line. Tabloid photography is seen as farce and a joke within the artistic field of photography. In the late forties, a photographer known as Weegee used tabloid photography as a way to expose the dystopic side of Los Angeles: a complicated world of extravagance and vulgarity.
Weegee (real name: Arthur Fellig) focused his lens on what we weren’t seeing of Hollywood in the mid-century, when Southern California was still quite mythical and seen as a wonderland of escapism. He captured the bottom side of that escapism, showing the myths revealed in the form of strippers juxtaposed with celebrities, naked mannequins juxtaposed with empty city streets. His work is the focus of MOCA’s Naked Hollywood and is named after a publication Weegee published in 1953. “Naked Hollywood” was a means by which to share what was really going on here, through the most literal form of artistic representation (photography) and the written word. (And, actually, Rizzoli and MOCA will be publishing a book in conjunction with the show that will also include an essay by art historian Richard Meyer.)
What’s most remarkable about Weegee’s work and Naked Hollywood is how inventive he was with his photography for the time and how he experienced Los Angeles. Beyond just (tabloid) documentary photography, Weegee was a bit of a scientist, experimenting with techniques in his dark room as he developed and took photos. His works straddled the absurd at points but also entered into surrealism and fantasy, making the viewer really dissect his work in order to undersand what is going on.
One of the best parts about the show, especially looking back at it with an eye for city history, is how the city looked back in the times of decades past. There are countless photos where Los Angeles is the star of the photograph, giving a glimpse into this weird, definitely alien world that is a far cry from the city we inhabit now. One of the images has a shot of Hollywood and Highland, an intersection that seemed like a ghost town compared to the bustling scene there now. Similarly, Downtown comes across as an even quainter neighborhood, uncrowded and open, which is definitely not the case now.
For more on Weegee and Naked Hollywood, check out the Pacific Standard Time blog!
Above: Weegee Among Wax Heads of Celebrities and Leaders, Unidentified Photographer, 1951. International Center of Photography, Bequest of Wilma Wilcox, 1993 © Weegee/International Center of Photography/Getty Images.