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Sunday, 3 July 2011

Now the easiest kind of job to cover was a murder...

...because the stiff will be laying on the ground, he couldn't get up and walk away or get temperamental, and he would be good for at least two hours.

 -- Arthur Fellig, a.k.a Weegee, transcribed from the Candid Recordings audio of Famous Photographers Tell How, 1958.

Weegee: Man with a still camera
Arthur Fellig had a knack. He wasn't just a photographer and he didn't just snap pictures. Arthur Fellig had a preternatural sense of what people wanted and the ability to deliver it in spades. He was a chronicler of the downtrodden, a recorder of misery, and he boasted these skills without shame or humility. Some even referred to him as the P.T Barnum of photography. And every self-aggrandizing showboat needs an angle...

Fellig quickly earned the nom de guerre Weegee, referring to the fact that he was always the first on the scene, almost as if he was summoning some divine force via a ouija board. The truth is less supernatural but no less interesting: Weegee had a police scanner next to his bed, a makeshift darkroom in the trunk of his car, and a typewriter he kept with him to write captions. He hung out in nightclubs, keeping his finger on the pulse of downtown New York. Oftentimes he beat local authorities to the scene. As Weegee's photographs became more widespread, now being published in the likes of Time and Vogue, Weegee began referring to himself as "Weegee the Famous" and "The Greatest Photographer in the World".

So was Weegee deserving of the titles and fame his photographs brought?

Very much so.

Weegee captured New York City like no one before or since. Lonely tenement blocks, dark alleys, and drunken denizens took on a mythical status, steeped in noir conventions almost to the point of romanticizing them. No easy feat. In fact, Weegee's first published book of photos, The Naked City, became The inspiration to one of the best film noirs ever made, also called The Naked City, directed by Jules Dassin. The film was shot on the gritty streets of  1940's New York City, a novel convention in a time where most movies were filmed on sound stages using sets. Weegee even has a Hitchcock-like cameo in the film. (I urge anyone unfamiliar with this film, or the genre of noir, to start exploring posthaste. You're really missing out on some of the most fascinating, groundbreaking films of the last century).

But the eerie prescience, the unprecedented preparedness, and the shameless self-hype would be nothing without the photographs. The typewriter was to Bukowski what the camera shutter was to Weegee. He recorded misery, debauchery, and crime with a poet's soul. Take for example, one of Weegee's most famous photographs: Balcony Seats to a Murder.

Balcony Seats to a Murder (1939)
Photo credit: International Center of Photography via Getty Images
A café owner had been shot, his lifeless body slumped in the doorway. Weegee, of course, was on the scene, as well as another photographer. This photographer took what's known as a "10 foot shot" framing the body in the doorway. Snap. Done. Maybe third page with an eye-catching byline in bold letters. Weegee didn't see it like this. A great drama was unfolding. You just had to step back and see it. From 100 feet away, Weegee captured all five floors of the tenement building, where people were gawking at the murder, heads hanging out windows and people gathering on fire escapes. Kids were even reading the funny papers. By expanding his point of view, Weegee allows his photo to comment on our innate voyeurism, lending gravitas to an already powerful scene.

Weegee often raised the ire of editors for capturing scenes of human emotion during a catastrophic event like a fire, to which firemen will refer to as a "roast" if people perished inside (which is what is happening the very moment the photo below was taken). Eschewing sensationalism ("Look. [Burning buildings] all look alike), Weegee photographed the people affected by the fire instead. He captures the hopelessness and loss associated with the fire.

Tenement Fire, Brooklyn (1942)
"I cried when I took this photo"
Photo credit: Amber Online

Weegee photographged an era we know nothing about today. He made the nights of NewYork City pulp art, capturing occurrences of misery and tragedy and infusing them with his singular vision. He perfected his method, securing himself as one of the best newspaper photographers in the business. It is comforting, in this age of cameraphones and ubiquitous social media, to reflect on Weegee, his tenacity and spirit, and think thats how it was done.

Weegee's advice to young photographers? Have sharp elbows.

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