Perspective | When Weegee worked for Stanley Kubrick, things got a little crazy


It seems like it shouldn’t work: Stanley Kubrick, the cerebral perfectionist, working with Weegee, the ambulance-chasing crime photographer of an earlier generation. I had no idea, in fact, that the two had a seesawing, era-spanning, mutually beautiful thing going until I saw this photograph by Weegee (his real name was Arthur Fellig).

It shows the actor Peter Bull in the role of Russian Ambassador Alexi de Sadesky on the set of Kubrick’s “Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb.” The photograph is currently on display at New York’s International Center of Photography in a 50th anniversary show of works from the collection.

Early in his career, Kubrick — working as a press photographer for Look magazine — had been intoxicated by Weegee’s stark flashbulb style and shocking subject matter.

[Stanley Kubrick’s little-known life as a still photographer]

This was the 1940s, and Weegee was famous. People were turned on by his voyeuristic, first-to-the-scene crime photographs, each one like a dirty martini, flooding the brain with its chilling mix of agony, ecstasy and fear of getting caught. A book of Weegee’s work, “Naked New York,” had sealed his lurid reputation.

But by the time Kubrick’s fame was peaking in the early ’60s, Weegee’s flame was guttering. He was reduced to acting in tawdry exploitation flicks set in nudist camps.

So Kubrick got to thinking. Wanting, perhaps, to repay an artistic debt, he hired Weegee to take photographs on the set of “Dr. Strangelove.” It was an arresting move. Renowned as one of cinema’s most fastidious aesthetes, Kubrick liked to be in control of every frame. Interesting, then, that what he most liked about Weegee’s photographs was their rawness, their quality of surprise.

Weegee liked to work with a flashbulb right on the camera. The technique produced stark, frontal illuminations that were miles away from the moody chiaroscuro favored by Columbia’s in-house set photographers. Kubrick loved them.

Weegee took hundreds of photographs for Kubrick — including of the slapstick pie fight with which the film was supposed to end (until Kubrick changed his mind). They were, according to Christopher Bonanos in Slate, “the last truly great body of work Weegee made.”

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In this photo, the illumination, the blurred hand, and Bull’s wide-eyed expression are all pure Weegee. The contrasts are great: The set’s deep-black background, Bull’s matte-black suit and his glossy black lapels set off the white scarf and the whites of his eyes.

But this is no crime scene. It’s an image of high jinks. Bull’s face is goofy. The unusual angle gives him a weird and hilarious monumentality. Most striking of all, of course, is Bull’s mouth. Given the cinematic context, it can’t help but recall the screaming woman at the end of the famous “Odessa Steps” sequence of Sergei Eisenstein’s film “Battleship Potemkin.” (That sequence in turn inspired many of Francis Bacon’s mid-century paintings of screaming popes.)

Weegee’s crime-chasing career showed that he fully understood the camera’s evidential power. But here, that sober power is mixed with something funnier and fizzier. The picture radiates aspects of Kubrick’s aesthetic, Bull’s persona and “Dr. Strangelove’s” subject (the possibility of nuclear annihilation), yet it transposes all this into a mode of theatrical hilarity.

That in itself is haunting.


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