Shot in the Dark

A new exhibition focuses on the lesser-known photos of the late, great Weegee

By Lauren Mechling
July 26, 2006
At an East Side Murder (1943). All photos courtesy the International Center of Photography.
At an East Side Murder (1943). All photos courtesy the International Center of Photography.

The self-styled “Weegee the Famous” went to sleep at nine in the morning. Sometimes he lay out on park benches, other times he dozed on a shelf in his office. He blew about like a ghost, napping in train stations and flophouses along New York City’s Bowery. The photographer didn’t have an apartment of his own until he was 35, and social invitations didn’t start to roll in for another decade.

Meanwhile, though, he found a home in the night. Weegee was a portly, beetle-browed obsessive who devoted his life to taking pictures of New York after dark. He cruised around in a 1928 Ford outfitted with a shortwave police radio that tipped him off to sites of murder and mayhem. Oftentimes, he beat the cops to the scene.

The tabloid newspapers that ran his pictures favored high drama over high art, and Weegee saw nothing objectionable in that. His images were scintillating, sentimental, boisterous, even caustic, but never pretentious. While his pinstriped suits and cigar habit suggested a tough guy straight out of a pulp novel, he was anything but dispassionate. Today Weegee is best known for his shots of criminals and corpses — he estimated he photographed 5,000 murder scenes during his life — but his interests reached far beyond that. His body of work is marked by a deep concern for the poor and immigrant classes; even gangsters come across looking sheepish and knocked-about.

Weegee’s knack was capturing his subjects in the throes of a moment — crying or kissing or turning cartwheels in the grass. During the heyday of his career, from the mid-1940s to mid-’50s, TV had yet to take over the American living room and the street was still a stage. “I was on the scene,” Weegee wrote in the introduction to Naked City, his first published book, “sometimes drawn there by some power I can’t explain, and I caught New Yorkers with their masks off ... not afraid to laugh, cry, or make love. What I felt, I photographed, laughing and crying with them.”

Ostensibly, he was shooting for newspapers, but he often found the bystanders far more compelling than the headline act. In many of his shots, like At an East Side Murder (shown here), he turned the camera on the spectators. We are given no hint as to the nature of the murder that just took place; all we see is the crowd looking on. To Weegee, looking at other people watching was often more intriguing than the spectacle itself.

Arthur (Weegee) Fellig was born in Zloczew, Austro-Hungary, in 1899. Eleven years later, his Jewish family escaped religious persecution and moved to New York’s Lower East Side. His father worked as a pushcart merchant before becoming a rabbi. Fellig dropped out of school at age 14 to help support his family, and found odd jobs at an Automat drugstore, the Lifesaver factory and a silent movie house where he played the fiddle. He left home at 18 and continued to scrape by on different short-lived jobs. He gained a foothold in the photography business at 24, when he became an assistant at Acme News Pictures (now United Press International). He had the cunning to take the late-night assignments that none of the other staffers wanted, and soon enough the editors were coming to him first. A dozen years on, he left his $50-a-week job to freelance full-time. He was the first ordinary citizen in New York to own a shortwave radio, but he didn’t advertise the fact. Instead he attempted to pass himself off as a psychic and started using a nickname that was a phonetic spelling of the Ouija board.

Competition among freelance photographers was fierce, but Weegee’s vibrant vision was unmistakable and hit a nerve with photo editors. He attributed his ability to manipulate feelings to his stint as a violinist at a silent movie house. “I loved playing the emotions of the audience. I could move them to either happiness or sorrow,” he would write in his autobiography. “I suppose my fiddle-playing was a subconscious kind of training for my future photography.”

An exhibition of some of the artist’s lesser-known works is now on display at New York’s International Center of Photography. The centre owns more that 20,000 of Weegee’s pictures. “His output was so much more than the 200 prints that get recycled again and again. He took just as many pictures of people kissing as he did dead bodies,” says curator Cynthia Young, who chose 95 images from 1937 to 1964 for Unknown Weegee.

Until late in his career, Weegee didn’t bother about technique. The powerful flashbulbs he used made for high-contrast pictures with bright centres and flattened backgrounds. He kept his camera on the same settings and only thought about cropping when he was at the enlarger. Making high art wasn’t his idea of a good time. He just wanted to tell a good story.

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