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The Naked and the Dead: Weegee’s Lessons for Today

Friday, February 24, 2012

One of the 20th century’s best-known cultural entrepreneurs was a proud member of the 99 percent: Arthur Fellig, better known as Weegee.

Weegee’s work has been shown many times during his life and beyond, but Murder Is My Business, a new retrospective at the International Center of Photography (ICP) in New York, which holds his archive, displays a side of his life that has received too little notice: He was a brilliant strategist as well as a passionate observer of humanity, and his story offers an object lesson in dealing creatively with challenges.

Weegee (Arthur Fellig) began his career as a photographic outsider, or rather as a previously anonymous insider, a darkroom technician at photography studios and newspapers. Ever since leaving school at 14 and running away from home at 18, often living on the streets, Fellig had worked at a series of unskilled jobs before learning the already obsolescent art of tintype.

As a photographic developer and printer he had become known as “Squeegee” for his skill. But it was a bold step to leave his original career at the age of 36 to become a freelance photographer in 1935. Some economic historians observe that while crises might make it riskier to strike out on one’s own, by depressing pay they also lower the opportunity costs of leaving a job.

Willingness to be a bottom feeder and transform the least desirable work into art can be a winning strategy.

Newspapers already had staffs of photographers specializing in street mayhem. The New York Daily News archive alone was the subject of a major retrospective at the Queens Museum a dozen years ago. As the museum’s director observed, passionate popular interest in the genre had a positive side; the lurid images encouraged the semiliterate to master the captions and stories.

Fellig needed a strategy to compete. As a single man without dependents, he was free to work the night shift. Short and tough looking, with a face that could have made him a character actor playing gangsters or detectives, Weegee often cast dignity aside to photograph himself, once as a bystander looking into a fateful trunk—and also as a captured suspect going through the stages of being booked by the police. Willingness to be a bottom feeder and transform the least desirable work into art can be a winning strategy.

Weegee got police cooperation for such shots by getting as close to his subjects as possible. He took a live-in studio above a gun shop near police headquarters. He bought a police radio to get the earliest possible news of a crime, then raced to the scene in a car with his equipment in its huge trunk.

Weegee understood that the public would give itself permission to gaze at horror if there was a humanistic message behind it.

Closeness also meant social networking; according to the exhibition’s curator, Brian Wallis, Weegee befriended the police, handed out cigars (his own image seems incomplete without them), and did favors like taking photos at a captain’s daughter’s 16th birthday party. But the crooks weren’t forgotten either, as when he described himself as “Official Photographer to Murder, Inc.,” New York’s infamous rent-a-thug cartel of the 1930s.

Black humor was essential to Weegee’s public image, exaggerating his own down-market style. He posed on his bare metal bed amid the tools of his trade, making sure a large can of Flit insect repellent sat prominently on his table.

He was also ahead of his time. In another shot, reproduced in Anthony W. Lee and Richard Meyer’s Weegee and the Naked City (ca.1939; not in the exhibition), a poster of the grinning boy who became Mad Magazine’s Alfred E. Neuman mascot in the 1950s is mounted above Weegee’s bed, “What, me worry?” motto and all.

Naked City was reprinted five times in 1945 alone and soon became the most profitable photographic book in American history—and is still going strong.

None of this would have mattered, though, if Weegee had not been a true artist as well as craftsman. The ICP exhibition contrasts some of his crime scene photos with those of his newspaper staff peers. It would be a stretch to call him the Caravaggio of urban homicide, but comparison shows his mastery of perspective, composition, and lighting. In pre-Photoshop days, when the photographer’s own “Hand of God” intervention could darken backgrounds to create a spotlight, Weegee’s behind-the-scenes experience paid off.

Technology was part of Weegee’s strategy, and not just the police radio. The Leica and other 35 mm roll film cameras had become increasingly popular in Europe by the 1930s—the ICP features another exhibition of contact sheets—but American photo editors still preferred the big 4 x 5 inch negatives of the Rochester, N.Y-made Speed Graphic, an icon into the 1960s, though none have been manufactured for decades. The time and expense of changing sheet film, cocking the shutter, and taking each image meant that at a typical scene, Weegee could make no more than four exposures. Each one had to count and demanded careful composition.

Compact digital photography has many advantages, but the constraints of the press camera encouraged thinking and planning. “Think before you shoot ... get punch into your pictures” was his favorite advice to aspiring photographers.

Conservative as Weegee’s taste in equipment was, his values were non-political and admirably adaptable.

Conservative as Weegee’s taste in equipment was, his values were non-political and admirably adaptable. He worked not just with commercial tabloids but with left-wing reform publications like the Photo League and PM newspaper, avoiding didacticism and party lines. As Anthony Lee remarks, the postwar era and anti-Communism created a chilling climate for many Depression causes, but they also made room for a more positive self-image. The war had helped integrate the immigrant masses who had been the subjects of Weegee’s reporting. As New Yorkers rose into the postwar multi-ethnic middle class, images of proletarian street life started to become nostalgic.

Weegee 2.23.12

Unidentified Photographer, On the Spot, December 9, 1939. © Weegee/International Center of Photography.

Weegee changed with the times. Only ten years after his initial career move, he emerged triumphant into the art photography scene, following a show at the Museum of Modern Art with his book Naked City, still in print. He was a master of market segmentation, authorizing editions ranging from fine art printing at $4.00 (in today’s $60 art photography book range) to mass market paperback at 25 cents. The grand old man of modern photography, Alfred Stieglitz, congratulated him with a personal note, “My laurel wreath I hand to thee.”

Weegee was turning to the more positive and optimistic sides of American life, like the shoulder-to-shoulder crowds at Coney Island. And he had reason to be hopeful. Naked City was reprinted five times in 1945 alone and soon became the most profitable photographic book in American history—and is still going strong. Weegee understood that the public would give itself permission to gaze at horror if there was a humanistic message behind it: police rescuing puppies and kittens from fires, and risking pneumonia diving to prevent suicides. Beneath the hard-boiled talk of Naked City is a concern and understanding born from his own experience, someone who could understand white and black New Yorkers alike and see society “high hats” as no less grotesque than Bowery characters.

Black humor was essential to Weegee’s public image, exaggerating his own down-market style.

In exploring the possibilities of self-reinvention, Weegee paved the way for another child of Central European immigrants who made his fortune on New York’s commercial side before recognition as a major artist: Andy Warhol. But there’s a difference between Warhol’s Death and Disaster series (itself based partly on news photographs of automobile accidents) and the fatalities in Naked City. Warhol became famous for his distance from his subjects that bemused and sometimes appalled critics. Weegee, even at his most mordant, encouraged identification with his subjects; he scorned criminals too cowardly to meet his lens head-on as “gentlemen and ladies.” His images are as much about the reactions of the crowd as about actual events, whether fans of Frank Sinatra or “dead-end” schoolchildren agog at “their first murder.” Even at his grittiest, he was a humanist at heart, holding up a mirror to a still-sentimental public.

Weegee showed that perseverance could create new cultural markets out of decades-old genres and hardware. Today there are more opportunities for immigrants’ children to reach the public through photographic and video sites, but in reducing the importance of gatekeepers, digital technology has also cut the financial support and instant fame that mass magazines like Life could once provide.

One object in the exhibition, a police press badge, symbolized the proud independence the photographer had achieved by midcentury. It reads: "Bearer: Arthur Fellig /Representing: Arthur Fellig /City Editor: Arthur Fellig."

Edward Tenner is author of Why Things Bite Back: Technology and the Revenge of Unintended Consequences and Our Own Devices: How Technology Remakes Humanity, and is a visiting scholar in the Rutgers School of Communication and Information and an affiliate of the Princeton Center for Arts and Cultural Policy Studies.

FURTHER READING: Tenner also writes “Why I’m an Adbooster,” “The Dismal New Science of Stagnationism,” and “Wizards: Cupertino vs. Menlo Park.” John Steele Gordon contributes “Snapshot of a Creative Destruction.” Frederick M. Hess says “America Is Still the Most Innovative Country in the World.” Nick Schulz describes “The Four Players Driving Innovation.”

Image by Rob Green / Bergman Group

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