Three Ways to Look at Famous Legs

L.A. Expanded: Notes from the West Coast
A weekly column by Catherine Wagley

Weegee, "Self-Portrait with Marlene Dietrich," ca. 1940s

My favorite photograph in MOCA Los Angeles’ newly opened Weegee show is the one of the crime photographer turned expert ogler with Marlene Dietrich’s legs. It’s a riff off another Weegee image, “Self-portrait with Marlene Dietrich,” in which the photographer leans in, smiling in a pandering sort of way at the actress, who’s wearing a leotard and cape and clearly saying something. Weegee then took that image and distorted it, superimposing her legs over her torso, so that Marlene is only legs, and it’s those legs he’s leaning in on and smiling at.

Marlene Dietrich, photographed by Richard Avedon for the Blackglama ad campaign, 1969

Other photographers of the era were much more delicate about their fixation with the Dietrich legs, famously insured by Paramount. Richard Avedon, for instance, had the actress in against a dark background with cloak pulled back to expose her long white limbs. Milton Greene showed her, again wearing black and against a black backdrop, sitting bent over so that her torso is barely visible–it’s just blond hair leading down to long white legs. Milton makes her all legs too; there’s just a sculptural elegance that allows the image to ingratiate itself as an aesthetic experience.

Marlene Dietrich, photographed by Milton Greene, 1952

Weegee’s take, on the other hand, is blatant and unapologetically so, clearly not at all worried about offending the star. But it’s not critical in the way Perez Hilton might be or exploitative in the same way a lot of paparazzi photos are. Weegee has been called the first ambulance chaser, and maybe, for some reasons, that’s the right title–after all, he did photograph unappreciative people being carted off in paddy wagons, capture topless women sleeping and snap what must have been an unsanctioned photo of Jane Russell’s behind. Here, however, it feels like he’s on the side of us, the viewers, not manipulating us with beauty in the way Avedon and Greene do, but poking fun at a cultural obsession he’s participating in and inviting us to join him.