If you need an excuse to visit New York City before summer’s end, here’s a suggestion: Dive into the dark world of Weegee, a tabloid news photographer-extraordinaire. His work is the subject of a fascinating show, “Weegee: Murder is My Business,” at the International Center of Photography in midtown Manhattan through September 2, 2012.
Arthur Fellig, known as Weegee, took graphic photos revealing the seamy side of New York City in the Thirties and Forties.
Born in 1899 as Usher Fellig, the famed photographer grew up in a Jewish shtetl in the Russian Pale of Settlement (now the Ukraine). His family fled the pogroms, settling in the Lower East Side of New York in 1909, where Usher was Americanized to Arthur. The poverty of his youth and the melting pot of his immigrant neighborhood made him an empathetic witness of the frailties of humanity.
Fellig gravitated toward photography as a young man, and landed a job at the New York Times, where one of his tasks was to squeegee excess water from prints before they were dried. Some say that the darkroom moniker “squeegee boy” is the origin of his professional name of Weegee. Fellig preferred to play up the similarity of Weegee to Ouija, the popular game in the Twenties that predicted the future.
As a news photographer, he was equipped with a shortwave radio in his car, and hook-ups to police and fire alarms in his dingy rented room. Fellig was often at the scene of a crime before the police. The name Weegee helped Fellig burnish his image as a photographer with uncanny instincts for being at the right place at the right time. The right time meant that Weegee was up close and personal with murder victims and their ever-present audience, the gawkers who fluttered like moths to the bright light of his flash gun and the free entertainment of unfolding sidewalk tragedies.
The ICP exhibit opens with a photograph of Weegee on a tenement fire escape, perched like a leopard stalking its prey. As a photojournalist, my first admiring thought was that a good visual observer always looks for an unusual angle to make a photograph. Then I learned that this was the fire escape outside his rented room, which was strategically located across the street from the police station in downtown Manhattan. Clearly Weegee’s photographic pursuits, mostly nocturnal, were not just his meager bread and butter, but the center of his life. The ICP exhibit reinforces the scrappy freelancer’s single-minded focus by recreating his actual cold-water flat, devoid of anything unrelated to the business of photography.
Weegee’s photographs, sold to numerous daily papers, are mesmerizing in their stark, unflinching documentation of murder victims, nabbed suspects, and the wide-eyed cast of characters who witnessed every crime. Lest you cringe at the subject matter, look closely at how he observes each scene, with his direct flash shedding penetrating light on both victims and their audience. It is not the blood and dead bodies that Weegee is really interested in. The documentation of crime scenes paid the bills, to be sure, but Weegee was actually after the range of unguarded emotional reactions to homicide.
Many of the pictures, with their harshly lit faces and large swaths of blackness, look theatrical yet intimate. Each is a stage set of New York in the decade before World War II. The murder weapons, the overturned men’s hats, and even the crumpled bodies appear as props. The police are the wooden actors populating most of the calamities, called upon to deal with captured hoodlums, grieving relatives and the protection of crime scenes (though they often appear to be handling the evidence in a cavalier manner). The observers, young and old, are the most engaging actors in Weegee’s one-act plays about life and death on New York’s gritty streets. The glint of his flash especially seems to capture his subject’s eyes, whether filled with tears of grief when confronted with the murder of their loved ones, or wide-open in fascination at the sight of a stranger’s blood.
I was drawn to photojournalism, in part, after seeing the work of Weegee and other photographers from the early decades of the 20th century, when technological improvements in reproduction and cameras made photography an essential component of newspapers. The emotional directness of these images was a refreshing change from the sometimes-pretentious fine art photography scene I observed as a young art student in New York. The details of the photographs may be quaint (and add greatly to their value), but the universality of the human emotions documented are timeless.
At The Baltimore Sun, staff photographers cover a wide range of assignments, with “spot news” only a small part of the mix. We rarely arrive as quickly as Weegee did, but sometimes we do capture the raw aftermath of crime scenes. Covering unplanned, unfolding news is an especially gratifying challenge, even though we don’t relish witnessing tragedy. I’ve added a few of my photos documenting the aftermath of several murders, in homage to Weegee and the others who managed to make powerful images with unwieldy equipment in the pre-digital age. This year Baltimore finally lost its ranking as one of the nation’s five deadliest cities, with both homicides and non-fatal shootings down in 2011, but we are not out of the crime photography business yet.