Infrared photos of 1940s movie audiences are a candid study of American voyeurism
Imaging the spectacle like only Weegee could
We don’t know who they are, what films are screening, or in which Manhattan movie house. Their faces, crystalized by the faintest of silver light, emerge from a sea of inky blackness, exposed mid-gaze in fits of laughter or sullen concentration, in slumber. The photographer Weegee made these pictures using infrared film and a filtered flashbulb in the early 1940s. It can be assumed he was invisible to his subjects, a silhouette at best huddled in the aisle during a matinee. Their unselfconscious postures and expressions read authentic.
And timeless. By the glow of the projection these audience members look nearly contemporary. An echo of the pallor we’ve developed by staring into flickering, reflective screens.
To the casual observer, these unlit photos may seem incongruous with Weegee’s best known work, as a strobe-toting chronicler of gangland murder scenes and the crowds they attract. But a closer examination of the master’s output makes clear that Weegee’s central interest was always spectacle and, in particular, the way we react to it. At crime scenes, tenement fires, strip shows, or film screenings, he was driven to examine people’s engagement with that which draws their attention. Including himself: Weegee was one of the first photographers who understood that pictures don’t just show the world as it is. They are reflections of their author’s individual sensibilities and desires—a physical manifestation of our inner voyeuristic proclivities. Weegee made it his task to look closely at the ways we look, and in so doing forged a deeper understanding of our appetite to see what we aren’t supposed to.