Weegee: Photos of a seedy underworld

Weegee: Photos of a seedy underworld
Weegee: Photos of a seedy underworld

A loner and an outlier, Weegee took news snaps of people on the margins – which went on to influence photographers after his death. A new reissue of his classic photobook Naked City reveals the extraordinary power of his images.

Arthur Fellig was a freelance news photographer famed for his gritty crime pictures of New York City in the late 1930s and 40s. Known as Weegee, perhaps a wordplay on ‘OuiJa board’ because of his prescient arrivals at the scenes of emergencies, he appeared like a character from a Hollywood film noir – cigar between his lips, cartoonishly big camera flash around his neck, a vocabulary that referred to dead bodies as “stiffs”.

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In his photos, Weegee captures gunned-down victims, buildings ablaze, and all manner of underworld characters. His pictures together form a portrait of the seedy underbelly of the Big Apple, like a comic strip printed in stark black and white. The work begs the question: how did he find these grisly moments in the city? For one thing, he had a bell in his apartment that connected directly to the Fire Department’s alarms. He was also the only freelance news photographer in the city with a permit to carry a police-brand shortwave radio, which he kept close while cruising the streets at night in his ‘38 Chevrolet, competing with police to race to the scene.

Weegee: Photos of a seedy underworld View image of (Credit: Weegee/ International Center of Photography)

Christopher Bonanos, the city editor of New York magazine, wrote an essay on Weegee in the new re-release of the photographer’s 1945 landmark book, Naked City. He explains that, when Weegee was starting out, he was an outsider in the photography world. There was no sense that his photos were art,” he tells BBC Culture. These were news photos shot for the Herald-Tribune, the Daily News, and the Post, among others. And yet, the Museum of Modern Art acquired five Weegee works in 1943, and Stanley Kubrick hired him as a stills photographer on Dr Strangelove. “As his career progressed, people started to see the power in these pictures,” Bonanos explains. “They realised that, if you put them up on the wall against a pure white surface, they hold up.”

In his early days as a freelancer, Weegee struggled to get by. He paid $17 a month for a tiny apartment, and earned just five dollars a photo. But as his ability to smell stories grew stronger, so did his ability to hustle. Around 1941, he began using a rubber stamp that credited his photos as Weegee the Famous. “He was not famous, he just decided that he was,” explains Bonanos, shedding light on the photographer’s fake-it-til-you-make-it ethos. “He talked himself up extremely well.”

Weegee: Photos of a seedy underworld View image of (Credit: Weegee/ International Center of Photography)

When Weegee arrived at a scene, he didn’t want to capture just the tragedy. He wanted his own angle, typically one that incorporated his dark sense of humour. Take his photo of a brownstone on fire, shot from some distance, all hoses pointed towards the top floors. “The joke in it, obviously, is the sign across the middle, which reads, SIMPLY ADD BOILING WATER,” says Bonanos. “One thing that Weegee loved was a photo that had a joke caption contained in it. This is one of the best examples. He wanted a big fat punchline, and if it was about a dark subject so much the better.”

Weegee: Photos of a seedy underworld View image of (Credit: Weegee/ International Center of Photography)

Weegee also frequently shot cross-dressing men picked up by the police. “At the time, these were staples of the tabloids, and I’m sure they were not received warmly,” says Bonanos. “They were probably look-at-this-freak pictures. When he makes them, though, they’re not cruel.” Such pictures speak to Weegee’s compassion for underworld characters, a group he clearly had empathy for. “One gets the sense that he, at least in the photographs, had an attitude of, ‘Ah, let them do whatever they’re going to do.’. He was not a person who was overtly political. But I think he had that streak of – as the expression goes –  comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable,” he adds, explaining Weegee’s approach to shooting different classes.  

Weegee: Photos of a seedy underworld View image of (Credit: Weegee/ International Center of Photography)

Naked City also includes evocative slice-of-life photos that weren’t crime stories, although they were still news photos, Bonanos says. “The picture of the kids playing in the fire hydrant was a news photo, because he knew that newspapers always needed a hot weather picture – they still do – and so he made a great one here.” It nevertheless reveals, again, Weegee’s compassion for subjects he felt close to. “A lot of these kids are street kids. They’re in the fire hydrant to cool off but they’re probably getting clean, too. So he did want to show the world that he came from; he likes shooting proletarian New York. That was his milieu.”

Weegee: Photos of a seedy underworld View image of (Credit: Weegee/ International Center of Photography)

Another shot shows two men in the back of a police van, their identities hidden behind two top hats, each figure mirroring the other as if contrived for the purpose of a striking image. “It would have been much more ordinary if it was just two guys sitting there. And the fact that they have top hats and are very well dressed adds some texture to it,” says Bonanos. “One of the men, after my book came out, his daughter and granddaughter got in touch with me. It turns out they weren’t career criminals. They were two guys at an event in a fancy hotel, and I think it was disorderly conduct or they had too much to drink. It wasn’t a horrible crime.”

Weegee: Photos of a seedy underworld View image of (Credit: Weegee/ International Center of Photography)

The most famous shot in this selection is called The Critic. It was shot outside the opening night at the Metropolitan Opera, November 1943, and shows two smartly dressed attendees next to a lady who evidently didn’t have a ticket. “It got famous even during Weegee’s lifetime because the Museum of Modern Art bought it a few months after it was made,” Bonanos explains. Curiously, the story behind the picture took three decades to come out. “What was revealed 30 years after his death, by his assistant, was that the observer woman on the right was a friend of his, and he set the whole thing up. Weegee always said that it was an accident, that he had taken the picture of the two ladies and noticed the third woman in the darkroom as he was processing. None of that was true. They had picked up the woman who was a friend of his from downtown, got her drunk, put her in Weegee’s car, brought her up to the opera house and set the whole thing up.”

Weegee: Photos of a seedy underworld View image of (Credit: Weegee/ International Center of Photography)

Weegee was drawn to characters on the margins of the city. It’s not surprising, then, that Diane Arbus was a fan. “I know Diane Arbus was looking at those pictures, and they definitely occupy some of the same mental space – the underworld, the real fringe people,” says Bonanos. “Her pictures are much more composed. They’re much more subtly lit. They’re often more posed than Weegee’s.” Arbus was in fact such a fan that, in 1970, roughly two years after Weegee died, she showed up at the brownstone where he lived. “She sat down with his girlfriend – effectively his widow as they never got married – and went through every single picture. She sat there for three days.”

Weegee: Photos of a seedy underworld View image of (Credit: Weegee/ International Center of Photography)

In the history of American street photography, Weegee’s work from this period feels pivotal. Crucially, it came before William Klein’s energetic NYC street snaps, and before Robert Frank’s highly influential The Americans. “I imagine Robert Frank was looking at Weegee’s pictures. You can see the influence,” says Bonanos. Where does Weegee fit into this history? “He’s a little bit of an outlier because he was such a loner as a creature, and because so much of the work was made specifically to newspapers’ specs. When he was starting out, there was no thought that newspaper photography could be anything but a craft. There was no thinking that this stuff would ever be in art museums.” The art world loved him as a sort of mascot, Bonanos explains. “They thought of him as a fabulous primitive. He was their flavour of the month for a while. Then he wasn’t. And then his fame began to slip away at the end of his life.”

Weegee’s Naked City is published by Damiani.

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