“I have no inhibitions, and neither has my camera. I have lived a full life and have tried everything. What may be abnormal to you is normal to me. If I had to live my life over again, I would do it all the same way – only more so.” Arthur Fellig, aka Weegee, admitted to his own, ghoulishly voyeuristic nature, but he was never one to apologise for it. At least he only watched. Others perpetrated. Weegee’s work was the proof, set out in black and white. The titles he gave to his unflinching photographs are often laconic, like labels tagged to evidence: Dead Gangster; Shot and Killed on East Street; Henry Maxwell Shot in Car.
By his own estimation,
The police nicknamed him Weegee after the Ouija board, because he seemed to have a sixth sense tuned to murder, arson and most other forms of nocturnal urban affray. As often as not, he beat the cops themselves to the scene, despite having to haul around an unwieldy flashgun and large-format Speed Graphic camera. Most of the dead bodies he snapped with this aptly named instrument were still warm, Weegee noted with quiet professional satisfaction.
But his most unusual quality was his remorseless ability to stare horror in the face. Whatever it might be, he would unflinchingly capture the story of the night: “A truck crash with the driver trapped inside, his face a crisscross of blood… a tenement-house fire, with the screaming people being carried down the aerial ladder clutching their babies, dogs, cats, canaries, parrots, monkeys… a just-shot gangster, lying in the gutter, well dressed in his dark suit and pearl hat, hot off the griddle, with a priest, who seemed to appear from nowhere, giving him the last rites …”
Many of Weegee’s most disquietingly memorable pictures are included in “Weegee’s Story”, an exhibition which opens at the
Yet Weegee himself was at least partly responsible for altering perceptions of his work - the engineer of his own elevation to a master of something more than plain reportage. He first achieved a fame beyond that of the tabloid news photographer when he gathered a group of his pictures together and published them under the memorable title, The Naked City. He subsequently sold that title to Hollywood, and it was used first for a film, starring Barry Fitzgerald and Dorothy Hart, and later for a television series, now generally remembered (if at all) for the mantra of its opening line: “There are eight million stories in the naked city: this is one of them…” The Naked City was no ordinary book of photographs and its influence spread with almost disconcerting rapidity. It helped to foster a wider fascination with the secret, seamy side of twentieth-century urban life, while Weegee’s harsh flashlit style – which actually involved the sacrifice of style, in the usual sense, for the quickest and most graphic way of getting at human pain – was adopted by a generation of cinematographers to frame their own fables. Weegee helped to make the city at night - haunt of thugs, hookers, mafiosi, gumshoes and a multitude of other misfits - one of the great subjects of twentieth century cinema.
Weegee’s belief that photography can reveal another, darker (and perhaps, in some obscure sense, truer) world has been as influential as his style and his choice of subject matter. Diane Arbus’s photographs, finding a dysfunctional community in the psychically damaged or the terminally helpless jetsam of American life - or, more, recently, Nan Goldin’s poignant photographic record of her own, druggy subculture - were certainly influenced by Weegee. The fascination with inexplicable psychosis, with staring into the eyes (and trying to fathom the minds) of serial killers and other dangerous criminals, so visible and so blatant in his photographs, has not gone away. If anything, the opposite is the case. Films of recent years like The Silence of the Lambs or Seven also owe a debt, however dilute, to his example.
But although The Naked City was the prophetic book of film noir, Weegee’s most compelling photographs still have a harshness that sets them apart from the more stylised and artful traditions of film and photography that their creator helped to found. Hanging Weegees in art museums cannot disguise their true, documentary rawness. They are moments of crisis, stolen from people’s lives (or the ends of those lives) and perpetuated forever. They are freeze frames from a chaotic, teeming world. There is nearly always something wild or uncontrollable about the city as seen through Weegee’s lens. This is even true of his rare essays in apparently benevolent observation, such as his famous picture of myriad sunbathers On Coney Island Beach – a vision of an urban multitude jammed together on the sands, a picture of the people taking refuge from
Weegee was also fascinated by the puzzled look he saw on the faces of the corpses he came across, lying flat on their backs in pools of their own blood, staring into the inky blackness of the city’s 4 am sky - as if wondering to themselves, blank-eyed, how on earth they came to be here, so terribly damaged, so utterly dead. He was fascinated enough to get right into their faces, to ignite his flashbulb, and photograph them as if for their portraits.
Perhaps Weegee was haunted by the terminal bafflement frozen on the faces of dead hoodlums because it seemed to express what he, too, the disillusioned chronicler of their wasted lives, felt about the world in which he found himself. There is a kind of retributive brutality about his photographs of the criminal dead – shot once, he is shooting them again, as if to fix both their guilt and its tawdry end – but there may also have been an element of sympathy on Weegee’s part. Born Usher Fellig, in 1899, in a part of what is now the
“From to one o’ clock, I listened to calls to the station-houses about peeping toms on the rooftops and fire escapes of nurses’ dormitories… From one to , stick-ups of the still-open delicatessens… From two to three, auto accidents and fires … At , things became livelier. At that hour the bars closed, and the boys were mellowed by drinks. The bartender would holler ‘Closing up!’ but the customers would refuse to leave… why go home to their nagging wives?… Then, from four to five, came the calls on burglaries and the smashing of store windows. After five came the most tragic hours of all. People would have been up all night worrying about health, money, and love problems. They would be at their lowest physical and mental state and, finally, take a dive out of the window.”
Weegee’s parents were devoutly Jewish, but although he observed Yom Kippur his own faith seems to have been less certain. If there is a God behind the goings-on in his night-time
After The Naked City made him famous, Weegee tried to make it in