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The photo entitled Anthony Esposito, Accused ‘Cop Killer,’ January 16, 1941 is one of Weegee’s most famous.Weegee

One of the most cherished romantic myths is that of the artist, neglected during his or her lifetime, who earns recognition posthumously. On first inspection you'd think the photographer Arthur Fellig, better known by his nom de lentille Weegee, should have filled that bill.

A fedora-topped, broad-faced, middle-school dropout rarely seen without a Cuban stogey clenched in his mouth, he earned his keep largely by relentlessly and resourcefully chronicling the seamy side of night-time New York with a flash-equipped 4x5 Speed Graphic camera. The results would then be sold to the dozen or so greasy tabloids hawked daily in the city in the mid-1930s and 1940s. The epithet "ambulance chaser" could have been coined for him – except for the fact that, equipped with a powerful police radio in his 1938 Chevy, Weegee usually was on the scene before the ambulances and the cops. If you knew Walker Evans or Edward Steichen back in the day, Arthur Fellig was no Walker Evans or Edward Steichen.

However, as the intense, absorbing exhibition Weegee: Murder is My Business, up now at Toronto's Ryerson Image Centre (RIC), shows, this proud, pint-sized son of the Lower East Side was determined not to let posterity judge his greatness. Early on, he took to stamping the backs of his black-and-white prints with a round seal reading, "Credit Photo by Weegee the Famous." In 1937, just two years after quitting his job as a darkroom technician at Acme Newspictures (later UPI) to become a freelance photographer specializing in gangland "moiduhs," tenement fires, grisly car accidents, drunks and rubberneckers, he was being profiled in Life and Popular Photography. Three years later, a 41-year-old Weegee was hired as staff photographer for the newspaper PM, which numbered Ernest Hemingway, I.F. Stone and Erskine Caldwell among its contributors. From mid-August to late September, 1941, he had a one-man show at Manhattan's Photo League gallery, titled (uh-huh) Murder is My Business. The Museum of Modern Art bought five of his pictures for its permanent collection in 1943, including them and two others in its popular Action Photography exhibition later that year.

When his first book, Naked City, a best-seller, was published in 1945, the front-cover blurb was provided by none other than MoMA's curator of photography, Nancy Newhall. Said she: "Through his sense of timing, Weegee turns the commonplaces of a great city into extraordinary psychological documents."

In other words, Weegee may have been a low-culture vulture, a bottom-feeder in the sea of yellow journalism, but there was an artfulness to his predations that the more with-it, voyeuristically inclined arbiters of high culture were quick to recognize and promote. Three-quarters of a century on, Weegee's stature as one of the 20th-century's greatest photo-documentarians remains unassailable. Indeed, RIC's Weegee: Murder is My Business is less an argument for that greatness than an affirmation of it.

If there's a flaw – and, admittedly, it's a minor one – to the exhibition, first assembled almost four years ago by Brian Wallis, then-chief curator of Manhattan's International Center of Photography (home to the Weegee archives), it's the familiarity of its contents. Or perhaps more accurately, the familiarity of their tone and texture (gritty, hard-boiled, noir-ish, distanced). It's a measure of Weegee's dominating aesthetic that when we think of New York in the late 1930s and early '40s today, it's his pictures, more often than not, that occupy the mind's eye.

Yet we sometimes forget that Weegee went on to live nearly another 25 years after his NYC salad days and that, following the success of Naked City, he moved to California where he plied his art until 1952, as if responding to a compulsion for new topics and refreshed points of view. The pictures he produced there – of movie premieres, strip clubs, awards events and Skid Row habitués, often highly distorted and deliberately "arty" – remain little known relative to the signature earlier works. Fortunately, a few years ago the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, along with the ICP, mounted an exhibition of some of these lesser-known images, calling it Naked Hollywood: Weegee in Los Angeles. Is it too much to hope that the RIC might mount the same or a similar presentation at some not-too-distant date?

In the meantime, let us praise the strengths of Murder is My Business. They're primarily two – smart contextualization and an attention to detail. Take the handling of one of Weegee's most famous pictures, 1941's Their First Murder, which captures the astonishingly varied reactions of a crowd gathered at a murder scene. Not only does the show provide an exquisite gelatin silver print struck from Weegee's original negative, there are reproductions of the image as it was played in PM, the magazine U.S. Camera and elsewhere, plus Weegee's photos of the source of the crowd's attention: the bloodied, bullet-riddled gangster sprawled on the street. Another famous picture, also from 1941, of the robber Anthony Esposito being booked on suspicion of killing a policeman, has its brilliance heightened by being juxtaposed with other, decidedly lesser non-Weegee photographs of the same criminal. And to illustrate Weegee's affinities and differences with the Photo League, the leftist collective that hosted his first public exhibition, there's a potent display of photographs by such League contemporaries as Helen Levitt, Aaron Siskind and Vivian Cherry. (One difference: Weegee had the colder eye. Empathy was not his business.)

Also effective are the three touch-screens in the show. Want to read the articles that Weegee's photos illustrated? Blow up images and focus on particular details? Flip through all 200-plus pages of Naked City? Hear the the sound of Weegee's voice? The screens let you do this. The voice recording is of particular (and humorous) interest because it's clipped from a conversation Peter Sellers had with Weegee on the set of the 1964 movie Dr. Strangelove. Weegee was the set photographer, Sellers, of course, the film's star. Listening to the clip, it's clear, as Sellers himself later acknowledged, that Weegee's nasal Lowah East Soid accent heavily influenced the accent Sellers used for the legendary title role.

Weegee's garish flash-lighting coupled with his strong graphic sense remain, for many, the sans pareil of authentic urban grittiness, the perfect style for rendering the truth of "what is there" in all its lewd and sordid, dangerous and sensationalistic glory. Yet there's at least one instance in the RIC exhibition that illustrates Weegee was not above using some pre-digital artifice to heighten the authenticity of his depictions of life in the raw. You can find it near the section that deals with Weegee's Photo League show – a picture, taken in 1941 by an unidentified photographer, capturing a cigar-chomping Weegee applying nail polish to the blood stains on the shirt of a wound victim he's photographed. You could call it pulping up the non-fiction.

Since its opening three years ago, the RIC has earned plaudits for the attractiveness of its exhibitions. Murder is My Business continues the tradition, expertly mixing framed wall-mounted prints – they total more than 100 – with judiciously positioned, informative vitrines of material (including one, at the show's start, containing Weegee's camera, his hat and a blow-up of his police-issued press pass). The walls are painted a rich newsprint-ish grey. Meanwhile, the large didactic panels that introduce each of the exhibition's four sections feature dark grey type on blazing yellow backgrounds, echoing the colour of the original Naked City cover and Weegee's stature as one of the princely practitioners of yellow journalism, his art an explosion of light in a dark, explosive world.

Weegee: Murder is My Business is at the Ryerson Image Centre, Toronto, through Dec. 13.