WEEGEE (ARTHUR FELLIG, né Usher Fellig, 1899–1968) was, as pretty much everyone knows, a brilliant tabloid press photographer and a genius at self-promotion. The two skills were intertwined in his makeup, and it’s a good thing they were, otherwise we might be rediscovering his pictures only now. That he is sometimes given sole credit for entire fields of photography, notably crime-scene shots, is an indication of what is perhaps his most extraordinary achievement: he broke the class line in the medium. In 1945, when Weegee’s book Naked City was published, only a comparative handful of photographers were known by name to a wider public. They were artists, who had had museum shows: Alfred Stieglitz, Paul Strand, Edward Weston and not many others. The remaining 99 percent of photographers were artisans, and you were no more likely to know their names than that of whoever designed your socks.
The young Fellig found his way to photography more or less by chance. He came to the United States with his family from Galicia, in the Pale of Settlement, at age 11, was not overburdened by formal education, and went to work at 15, eventually assisting a tintype portraitist who plied the streets with a pony as a prop. This led to a decade and a half of work in photo labs, which may be where he acquired his moniker, from “squeegee boy”— although he certainly encouraged people to think it derived from the Ouija board, as a consequence of his vaunted ability to arrive at crime and accident scenes before the cops did (which was less a matter of second sight than of his owning a police scanner and keeping a full range of equipment in the trunk of his car). In any case, he was a hustler from the start. Once he got an opportunity to take news pictures, he worked the corners disdained by other photographers: sticking close to police headquarters, staying out all night, frequently checking reports on the teletype. He was a character, loquacious and unkempt, with an ever-present stogie in his yap.
Because he was so colorful, and because he came through with shots no one else managed to get, he was profiled twice in 1937, in Life and Popular Photography. This was not a measure of his art. Rather it marked him as the sort of only-in-New York personality chronicled by the likes of Joseph Mitchell and A.J. Liebling. (Weegee always claimed that Mitchell had profiled him for the New Yorker; if so, the piece was never published and no manuscript has ever been found.) In fact, the received idea, persisting for decades, was that Weegee’s pictures, for all their sensational qualities, conspicuously lack skill. Bruce Downes, publisher and editor of Popular Photography, could even write in the introduction to Weegee on Weegee (1962) that he “accumulated an impressive collection of pictures, the photographic quality of which was uniformly poor.”
Of course, Weegee did take thousands of pictures over the years of his newspaper work, and undoubtedly many were rushed or indifferent. But the inability of his contemporaries to gauge the true worth of his output was due to a sort of typecasting, as well as to the enduring Victorian idea that nothing could be considered beautiful without also being uplifting. Weegee’s photographs, by this reasoning, could not be art because they had emerged from the gutter—but that is also why the public enjoyed them enough to make Naked City a best seller and Weegee a celebrity. His pictures held up a mirror to their time, although most people would not have been eager to see their own face reflected.
Today we can look at Weegee’s photographs with very different eyes. Photography itself is perceived very differently from the way it was when he was working. We can now place Weegee in a variety of contexts—his immediate competitors, his contemporaries around the world, the full timeline of the art—and doing so only enhances his stature. He no longer looks like a freak, except in his mastery of publicity, which no other tab- loid photographer of his time approached, or perhaps even attempted. (There is also the sad fact of his later years, when Weegee tried to become an “artist” using the same vaudevillian strategies, but with relatively dis- appointing results, since he was unwilling or unable to transfer the emotional qualities of his news photogra- phy to his experiments with distorting lenses.) Weegee can now be seen as the portraitist of a vanished world, that of the urban working class before television and processed foods and postmodern alienation. And
he did not just take their pictures. He was one of them, and shared their viewpoint.
Before Weegee, the urban masses were photographed by outsiders, largely well-meaning: John Thomson, Alice Austen, Jacob Riis, Lewis Hine. They treated their subjects for the most part with respect, but that was itself a measure of their separation; the subjects could easily become types, nobly representative of their kind. The one photographer who approached Weegee’s level of intimacy with his subjects was Brassaï, but he was a bohemian, which meant he could have it both ways. There isn’t a grain of piety in Weegee’s work, which doesn’t mean that there isn’t tremendous empathy. Weegee was right down in the street with his subjects, and he saw things as they might if they’d had cameras—and possessed a pene- trating eye and razor timing, of course. His pictures are often sentimental, their humor is low, their moralizing is cheap. But the photos answering to such description have to be seen as part of the broad fabric that is the whole of his work, which reflects the contradictions of a city. Right across the street from them, so to speak, are icy pictures of the dead, in which Weegee’s empathy is noted obliquely. He liked to photograph corpses with a lot of air above them, so that you could register how hard they fell.
For all his easy familiarity with his subjects, Weegee was a public photographer: he never penetrated a certain privacy barrier, rarely entered people’s homes. His overarching subject is the theater of the streets, and it is a given that anyone who happens to appear within the frame of a Weegee photo is, as a consequence, an actor. Young lovers embracing on a park bench implicitly agreed that their clinch was a public act; flophouses set private activities in a public place no matter the preferences of their inmates. Weegee took pictures of intentional theater often enough—circuses, costume balls, wartime rallies. His principal quarry, though, was the theater that occurred spontaneously and unforeseeably on the street. This, more often than not, surrounded the aftermath of crimes and accidents. Since Weegee was nothing if not thrifty, and knew how to make maximum use of his opportunities, he realized early on that such a scene would yield two sets of pictures: of the victim and of the crowd.
The victims are always ignominious, mashed face down, hanging half off the sidewalk, strewn among baked goods or bocce balls, half-covered with newspapers, with two cops conducting a conversation over them. His crowds, meanwhile, are often so avid that without a caption it’s impossible to tell whether they are seeing a dead body or a live movie star. Their first murder (1941), maybe his greatest picture, is a field of faces at different angles, displaying the whole range of emo- tions from anguish to glee, like an allegory by Hals or Hogarth that happened to occur one day for a fraction of a second in front of his lens. Weegee could not have known he was making a picture that would long outlive the memory of the event it depicted, but nevertheless he was responsible for making his own luck. Not many other photographers of the time stuck around to take pictures of the crowd after snapping the body—maybe only Weegee’s principal employer, the left-wing daily PM, would have published such things.
Weegee timed the publication of Naked City superbly. Its success allowed him to go Hollywood in 1947, however briefly, just as the clock was running out on his public and his subject, one and the same, as they began the trek out to the tract-house suburbs that would occupy the next 20 years. And there were already intimations of change in the air. At Sammy’s Bowery Follies, Weegee documented New York of 40 or 50 years earlier reenacting itself for the benefit of swells and college kids to whom it was all an entertaining grotesquerie. Although there’s a smile on every face, the festivities appear so terminal that it comes as a shock to learn that the place managed to hang on until the early 1970s, after Weegee’s death, by which time the Bowery had become exclusively the province of stumblebums.
Weegee was an unlikely collection of skills and attributes, who could perhaps only have existed, or at least flourished, in his own time. He was a man of the people, when that counted; a character, when that helped attract business; a sentimental cynic, when that was the currency; and an artist when hardly anyone was prepared to notice. He managed to pass for simple because he talked like the boys down at the cigar store, but his eye had already been to every kind of school.
“Weegee: Murder Is My Business” is on view at the International Center of Photography, New York, through Sept. 2. “Naked Hollywood: Weegee in Los Angeles” appeared at the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art, Nov. 13, 2011–Feb. 27, 2012.
LUC SANTE is a writer whose books include Evidence, an annotated collection of NYPD crime-scene photographs.