Today, the Bowery is an increasingly posh area characterized by luxury condominiums, upscale grocery chains, and high-income residents. This month, it’s getting a new museum, the International Center of Photography, which is marking the occasion with an exhibition of photos from the 1940s and ’50s, a time when the Bowery was a place known for its fleabag hotels and flocks of alcoholics and drifters.
These photos come courtesy of Weegee, the New York City freelance news photographer best recognized for his garish but irresistible images of crime and calamity. The ICP has more than 20,000 photographs by the photographer (who was born Usher Felling), and more than 300 were taken of the Bowery’s streets, people, and businesses. While a few among them depict classic Weegee subjects such as fires and accidents, the photos on the whole constitute a celebratory representation of the neighborhood, ICP curator Christopher George said.
Weegee lived near the Bowery for years, so the area was his “backyard and stomping ground,” George said. Many of the photos were taken at Sammy’s on the Bowery, a local nightclub and cabaret where he threw launch parties for his books Naked City and Weegee’s People. Those photos tend to be spirited and life-affirming, but others, particularly those of the all-night missions providing food and shelter to the down and out, show a much more sobering side of life in that part of town. Across the board, however, Weegee’s photos communicate a genuine affection for the area.
“The great thing about Weegee’s photos is they’re not exploitative. There’s much more humanity to them,” George said.
“Weegee’s Bowery” is on display at the ICP gallery at Mana Contemporary in Jersey City, New Jersey, until Aug. 5.