hen the French artist Paul Delaroche saw one of the first photographs in 1839, he is said to have exclaimed, “From today, painting is dead!” In response to the threat Delarouche perceived, the art of painting underwent a series of radical stylistic transformations that kept it in the vanguard of aesthetic expression in the modern era. At the same time, photography never quite won full acceptance as an art form coequal in popularity and significance to painting. Save for Ansel Adams, Robert Mapplethorpe, and (possibly) Diane Arbus, it is hard to think of even one fine-art photographer whose name would likely be recognized by an educated American with a casual interest in the visual arts.
As late as the ’70s, though, there were still a fair number of news, fashion, and portrait photographers who were well known in America and abroad. Richard Avedon, Margaret Bourke-White, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Walker Evans, André Kertész, Philippe Halsman, and Irving Penn all won considerable fame, in most cases because their work appeared in Life, the weekly newsmagazine launched in 1936 that first made well-reproduced photography of all kinds available to the public at large. Prior to the rise of network TV, newspaper and magazine photojournalism (as it used to be called) was the ordinary person’s window on the world, and some of its practitioners were so talented that they came to be seen not merely as journalists but as full-fledged artists.
Arthur Fellig, known by the pseudonym “Weegee,” took a lower road. He specialized in shooting crime scenes as a self-taught, mostly anonymous freelancer for New York’s tabloid papers. But the individuality of his work was impossible to overlook, and by 1948 he was sufficiently famous that The Naked City, Jules Dassin’s movie about the New York Police Department’s homicide squad, was named after and influenced by his first published collection of photos. The stark black-and-white visual language of film noir was similarly influenced by his flash-lit, high-contrast style, which art critics found no less impressive. Four of his photographs were included in a 1943 Museum of Modern Art exhibition called “Action Photography.”
It is thus surprising that the first full-scale biography of Weegee has only just been published. Fortunately, Christoper Bonanos’s Flash: The Making of Weegee the Famous was worth the wait.1Profusely illustrated and written in a lively but not showy manner, Flash is comprehensively informed, consistently intelligent, almost entirely devoid of technical jargon, and, unlike many pop-culture biographies, not too long for its substance. It explains with clear-eyed sympathy why “Weegee the Famous,” as he billed himself, had slipped into obscurity by the time of his death in 1968, and why he is increasingly remembered only by historians of photojournalism.
orn in what is now Ukraine in 1899, Weegee was the second son of a family of Yiddish-speaking Galician Jews who emigrated to Manhattan 10 years later, where they shared a rat-infested Lower East Side tenement. He discovered his métier by chance when an itinerant street photographer took his picture in 1913. Fascinated by the results, he bought a tintype kit, and within a year he had landed a job at a commercial photo studio. By 1921 he was a darkroom assistant at the New York Times, and shortly after that he was selling pictures to any newspaper that would print them.
The invention in 1925 of the flashbulb, which made it possible to take unposed photographs at night and indoors, sealed Weegee’s future. By 1934 he had become a full-time freelance news photographer. He set up shop in a squalid studio apartment that doubled as his darkroom, installing a police radio and a fire-department alarm bell and prowling the streets of New York each night in search of scenes of carnage.
As he later explained:
Most of your job is just sitting around waiting for some baby doll to toss a knife into her daddy.… Most fires happen around one or two in the morning. Five o’clock is the jumping time—people are out of liquor and the gin mills are closed. Their resistance is low, and if they’re going to do it, that’s when they do it.
Weegee’s photos, which were syndicated to newspapers throughout the U.S., appeared in those papers a few years after Warner Bros. and other studios began releasing gangster movies such as Little Caesar and Scarface that contained unprecedentedly explicit scenes of mayhem. The black-and-white cinematography of these films was strikingly similar in effect to the news photos taken by Weegee and his colleagues. Whether their cinematographers had been influenced by newspaper photojournalism—or vice versa—cannot be known. What can be said with certainty, though, is that a growing number of Depression-era Americans, whether they knew it or not, increasingly viewed urban life in America through the lens of Weegee’s old-fashioned Speed Graphic camera.
Completely self-taught, Weegee knew nothing of the techniques of fine-art photography. He used the same film, flashbulb, and lens aperture (usually f/16, the smallest one in common use) for all of his pictures, which were typically shot from two distances—six feet for faces and 10 feet for group photos and crime scenes. All he cared about was taking hard-edged photos that embodied the essence of a story in a single bold image. The more of them he took, the better his instinct became for spotting and shooting memorable slices of criminal life—and death.
Among the first to establish him as a master of his nocturnal trade was a 1936 photo of Dominick Didato, a mafioso who was gunned down outside an Italian restaurant in Greenwich Village. A straw hat and the revolver with which he was shot lay next to him on the sidewalk. Weegee took three pictures, the last a medium-close photo that showed only the gun, the hat and Didato’s crumpled body, which faced away from the camera. “I made the stiff look real cozy, as if he were taking a short nap,” he said. The resulting photo, in which the sidewalk cuts diagonally across the frame to add energizing asymmetry to an otherwise squarish composition, all but explodes off the page.
What set Weegee apart from his competitors was the sureness of his untutored eye, as well as the humane yet unsentimental way in which he portrayed his subjects. Coarse and vulgar in manner, he was nonetheless acutely sensitive to the pathos of the working-class world into which he had been born. Indeed, he came fully into his own when he turned the camera away from crime scenes to shoot the people who were horrified by what they saw on the mean streets where they lived:
When I watched the other photographers on stories, I saw they used the camera like a machine and that they thought like machines. My idea was to make the camera human. I was dealing with people at their most tragic moments.
An early example is the wrenching 1939 Daily Mirror photo Weegee himself called “I Cried When I Took This Picture.” Taken at a tenement fire in Brooklyn, it shows not the fire but two of its survivors, their faces a pair of grief-twisted masks that are all but swallowed up by the encroaching darkness. He supplied a Walter Winchell–like caption when, six years later, he included it in Naked City: “Mother and daughter cry and look up hopelessly as another daughter and her young baby are burning to death in the top floor of the tenement.…Firemen couldn’t reach them in time…on account of the stairway collapsing.”
Weegee moved even more decisively toward humanizing his photos when he went to work for PM. Founded in 1940 by Ralph Ingersoll, PM was a left-liberal daily paper that made human-interest photojournalism a key part of its news report, and Weegee promptly became one of its stars. It was Ingersoll’s idea for him to also write the stories that accompanied his pictures. As Weegee recalled it, the editor said, “I can get plenty of guys that can spell. I can’t get guys that can write like you.” And it was true: The photographer’s “Weegee’s Own Story” descriptions of his pictures and how he shot them were couched in an unselfconsciously slangy prose that echoed his own Lower East Side speech and added to the immediacy and popular appeal of his photos.
Of all the Weegee photos that ran in PM, the most frequently reproduced one is “The Critic,” shot outside the Metropolitan Opera House on opening night in 1943. It shows a bedraggled, seemingly homeless female derelict standing at arm’s length from two socialites. She gapes at them with an ambiguous expression that some read as hatred and others as mere drunkenness. The photo, which was published in both PM and Life, retains its power to shock three-quarters of a century later. As Bonanos describes it:
The drunken woman…is caught in perfect 90-degree profile, giving her features a sharpness against the dark background. Because her clothes are darker, she doesn’t pick up the flash as the bejeweled ladies do. Her coat reads dishwater gray, her hair lank, her scowl dark, her eyes rolling.2
Can “The Critic” and “I Cried When I Took This Picture” be properly described as “art”? To insist that they are mere journalism is true as far as it goes, but to make the claim misses the point. One cannot look at such photos without recognizing that they, too, have the overwhelming aesthetic appeal and moral impact of a first-rate work of high art, in much the same way as do such contemporary pieces of wartime reportage as Ernie Pyle’s “This One Is Captain Waskow” or “Cross-Channel Trip,” A.J. Liebling’s New Yorker story about D-Day. If they are not art, what is?
By the time Weegee shot “The Critic,” he was already a minor celebrity. He had actually been the subject of a photo feature published in 1937 in Life, and “Murder Is My Business,” the first exhibition of his photographs, attracted considerable media attention in 1941. So did the inclusion of his work in MoMA’s “Action Photography” and “Art in Progress,” the latter a 1944 show mounted to celebrate the museum’s 15th anniversary. Five Weegee prints, including “The Critic,” were shown as part of “Art in Progress,” and their presence led to the publication in 1945 of Naked City, which sold 14,000 copies within six months of its release.
By then, a decline in the murder rate had led him to concentrate on human-interest photos. After 1942, PM never again published a Weegee photo of a murder victim. But it was his crime-scene work that left its mark on the mise-en-scène of The Naked City, shot entirely on location in New York. Its release in 1948 was the high point of Weegee’s career. He could not have known that the rest of his life would be a downhill run.
Galvanized by the success of The Naked City, Weegee moved to Hollywood, where he sought in vain to establish himself as a filmmaker and sometime actor. By the time he returned to New York in 1951, PM had shut down and the city’s remaining newspapers were less interested in human-interest photos, in part because urban renewal had led to the demolition of most of the old-fashioned tenements whose working-class street life Weegee had documented. He was ultimately forced to sell racy “cheesecake” photos to men’s magazines to make a living. His last hurrah came when Stanley Kubrick, himself a press photographer turned Hollywood filmmaker, hired him in 1963 to take pictures on the set of Dr. Strangelove.3 He died of a brain tumor five years later, all but forgotten.
owadays Weegee is regarded by most art critics as an artist of permanent significance, one whose work is thought all the more valuable precisely because, like the gangster movies of the ’30s that are mirrored in his crime-scene photos, it was created for commercial purposes. Under the aspect of postmodernity, the distinction between highbrow, middlebrow, and lowbrow has lost all semblance of meaning, and it would never occur to any critic or scholar much under the age of 60 to dismiss a press photographer like Weegee as a “mere journalist.” No less important, many of his best pictures have passed into the common stock of pop-culture reference. Our collective mental image of New York street life is shaped to this day by his work.
Even so, The Public Eye, a 1992 neo-noir film written and directed by Howard Franklin in which Joe Pesci plays a fictional character based on Weegee, received favorable reviews but did poorly at the box office. The very idea that the life of a news photographer might be the romantic stuff Hollywood movies are made of struck audiences then, and strikes us now, as absurdly quaint.
Why? Because we no longer look to still photos to show us the world. Life went out of business in 1972, TV long ago supplanted the print media as our preferred source of news-related visual imagery, and it has been decades since a fine-art photographer last became known outside the world of art. Moreover, press photography itself is dying out, undercut by the smartphone, which allows anyone to take snapshots in once-unimaginable quantities and distribute them far and wide via the social media. More and more, photography appears, as critics such as Janet Malcolm were already suggesting in the ’70s, to be a game amateurs can play with a skill essentially indistinguishable from that of so-called professionals. If Weegee was an artist, then his chosen form is no longer one to which the word “art” can be applied with anything like its traditional meaning.
Yet Weegee’s best photos remain stubbornly memorable, not because of their limited technical sophistication but because, like all great realist art, they show us a poetically heightened version of the world as it is. His, to be sure, is a lost world—but one that is all the more to be treasured because it no longer exists save in the fugitive moments that will forever after be seen through his camera-sharpened eye.
1 Henry Holt, 400 pages
2 Weegee never admitted it, but “The Critic,” according to Bonanos, was a setup of his own devising. He had gotten the onlooking woman drunk that afternoon, then brought her to the Met and waited for an opportune moment to take her picture. Several of his other photographs were similarly staged, a practice that would now be treated by reputable editors as a firing offense.
3 In addition, Peter Sellers adapted Weegee’s distinctive accent for his portrayal of the film’s title character, a mad German émigré.