A Flashbulb in the Naked City
By Paul Richard
Special to the Washington Post
Sunday, September 2, 2001
Weegee was a character cartoonishly New Yorky. All the
night folk knew him -- the guys and dolls on Broadway, the stickup men, the Bowery bums, the homicide detectives. Weegee was the city's greatest freelance roving police photographer, at least for a while, in the '30s and the '40s when he had no other life.
He looked a little like Edward G. Robinson, but without the panache. He stank of chewed cigars. For "murder" he said "moidah." Slum-raised, macho, streetwise, coarse, he exaggerated shamelessly, butted in, cracked wise. What sex he got he paid for. He was famous for his rumpledness. On the thin bed in his rented room -- where the police dispatchers' chatter crackled all day long -- he slept in his suit.
Weegee was, let's face it, something of a schmo.
He was also a big artist. His sure, contrasty photographs -- 200 are on view now in a show called "Weegee's Story" at the Chrysler Museum of Art here -- are distillations of his time.
He said, "Murder is my oyster," which came out "Moidah is my erstah."
Weegee'd cruise the shadowed streets sniffing out the news, the three-alarms, the stiffs, the unexplained explosions. His time was after midnight when the squares were in their beds.
"Life was like a timetable," he wrote, "tragic, but on schedule, with little bits of comedy relief interspersed among the crimes.
"From midnight to one...peeping toms on the rooftops and fire escapes of nurses' dormitories...From one to two o'clock, stick-ups of the still-open delicatessens...From two to three auto accidents and fires...At four o'clock, things became livelier. At that hour the bars closed, and the boys were mellowed by drinks."
That's the way he wrote and talked, with dots between the phrases, in teletypey, rat-a-tat, Walter Winchell prose.
Weegee shot the truth. He also shot a dreamland. The images he left us have the permanence of fables. They make the timely timeless. His gawkers are the common folk, rude and elemental. His stories are the stories -- of perils and of heroics -- told always around firesides. His inky shadows are the shadows of dark enchanted woods.
Many art historians aren't quite sure where to place him. Some see his work as media art. Others, disregarding his harsh, hard-boiled music, assign him to the company of such lyrically poetic street photographers as Brassai and Cartier-Bresson, Lisette Model and Robert Frank. Some bind his art to Hollywood, and to the dark inventions of the gangster-film directors -- John Huston, Howard Hawks. But I would place him elsewhere, up there with the likes of Norman Rockwell and Walt Disney, if only for the way he somehow sets the furniture in vast familiar thought-realms known to all Americans.
And not only to Americans. The exceptionally well-chosen photographs in Norfolk all call from the collection of Hendrik A. Berinson, an art dealer in Berlin.
In Rockwell's painted genre scenes everyone is nice, but just try to find a nice guy in Weegee's hard New York. Disney's is a sugared realm of Mother Goosey pufferies. Weegee's is its underside. No sentiment allowed. ("People get bumped off," he wrote. "On the sidewalks of New York the guys are always neatly dressed...full face up...with their pearl-gray hats alongside of them.") He does not lead us upward to the bright and shining city on the hill, but completes our sunny fantasies by showing us the shadows, by adding to the mix criminals and corpses, by bending his aesthetic toward the stripped, the true, the tough.
But he, too, sprinkled magic dust, gave his art to millions, exploited the mass media, mastered his metier, and somehow stuck his narratives deep into the quick of our shared imagination. The images he gave us are part of who we are.
Flashbulbs flash like lightning in Weegee's naked city. In the darkness menace lurks. All the men wear hats.
Here, as in the speed of dreams, traffic is no hindrance. The Packards of the killers (sharklike, shiny, black) slide swiftly through the shadows. No one stops for stoplights. The trucks that shed bundles of tomorrow morning's tabloids, the coppers' Black Marias -- and Weegee's runtish '38 Chevrolet coupe -- squeal round the corners. This is mythic country, surely. In Weegee's noir New York you can park at any curb.
Fans of Humphrey Bogart and of "The Sopranos," of Edward Hopper's "Nighthawks," gangsta rap and Hemingway will recognize the neighborhood. The if-it-bleeds-it-leads havoc of the nightly news is still Weegee-esque. Hard-bitten reporters, sultry femmes fatales, prowling private eyes, those American romantics -- and everyone who's ever dreamed himself as such -- have walked these streets before.
Weegee iconized them.
The stiff on the sidewalk, the trench-coated detective, the hack in the Yellow Cab, the lineup in the precinct house, the lone, hunched-over walker in the circle of the lamplight -- all of these are somehow his.
His photographs are steel-hard, ruthlessly efficient, perfectly composed. Their punch is irrefutable. You can't make such things by accident. Weegee gave his all to them. He was a thoroughly schooled pro.
His rented room was across the street from police headquarters. His car was the first private automobile in New York with a legal police radio set into the dash. His office, such as it was, was in the trunk. When he opened it he'd find everything he needed -- his big Speed Graphic cameras, his stash of Kodak 4-by-5s, a flashlight for the shadows, a typewriter for captions, a pair of high galoshes for tenement fires, and a box of bad cigars.
He had never been to art school, had scarcely gone to school at all, but his training, nonetheless, was just about ideal.
He'd lived the immigrant experience. He arrived at Ellis Island one day in 1910, a wide-eyed, frightened 10-year-old from Zloczow in Galicia with some Polish and some Yiddish but no English at all. Not much money, either. His father pushed a pushcart. Weegee'd spent his Lower East Side childhood in grim cold-water walk-ups. Often he'd gone hungry. He'd bused dishes in the automat, and slept rough in Penn Station, and you sense it in his art.
His people are not types. All his Coney Island bathers, cop-killers and clowns are individualized New Yorkers. He gave everyone a break, even skid row bums. One tavern he shot often was Sammy's in the Bowery, where the street folk gathered. Weegee granted them their due dignity. He'd been one of them himself.
"I, too, used to walk the Bowery broke," he wrote. "The sight of a bed with white sheets in a furniture store window almost drove me crazy."
In eighth grade he quit school. Once he got a gig with a street entrepreneur who'd pose children on a pony and sell tintypes to their parents. That brought him to photography. At 24 he got a job at Acme Newspictures, assisting in the darkroom for $20 a week.
He came to art through lab work. From 1924 until he went freelance he kept his job at Acme, printing and developing other people's images, interrogating editors, learning what would sell.
Weegee was, of course, not his real name.
Some said it came from "squeegee," and that he'd won it in the darkroom for the speed and skill with which he wiped hypo from wet prints. Others said (and Weegee liked this version better) that his name came from "Ouija board" because of the uncanny way he manged to anticipate the robberies and hits of the night.
It was a clown's name, like Popeye's, but he didn't mind. He was used to looking clownish, and Arthur Fellig, he supposed, was not much of a byline. Weegee was much better. It had mystery and snap. It was bound to catch attention. Weegee held a buried barb, sort of like his photographs: It hooked into your mind.
His timing was just right. Weegee began freelancing in 1935. Life magazine appeared in 1936, making photojournalists stars for the first time.
With half of his strange being Weegee dreamed of being one of them, but he'd take no full-time job. "I keep to myself," he wrote, "belong to no group, like to be left alone." Still, when he sold his work to Life he did not conceal his pride. A picture of the check stub is in the Norfolk exhibition. It says: "Two murders -- $35.00."
Murder was his specialty. "I knew all the guys in Murder, Inc., very well," said Weegee. "Take Dutch Schultz, Jack Legs Diamond, Mad Dog Coe, and Lefty Gordon, anyone you can mention. I used to photograph them when they were alive. They were very nice guys."
Also, they were famous. And Weegee yearned for fame. Long before he got it he pretended it was his. "By Weegee the Famous" was the credit line he stamped on the glossies that he tried to sell nearly every morning to the New York Times, the Herald Tribune, the Journal-American, the Post, the Sun, P.M. and his favorite magazine, the Police Gazette.
At last he got his wish. "Naked City," a book of Weegee's pictures with his far-from-modest text explaining how he'd made them, appeared to much acclaim in 1945.
Suddenly he'd made it. His face was in the papers. Adventurous young women now rode shotgun in his Chevy. (He no longer paid for sex, he said.) His prints were on the walls of the Museum of Modern Art.
Then he quit. In 1946, Weegee left the street life. He sold his title, "Naked City," to the movie guys in Hollywood, and moved out West himself. He thereafter made portraits, not especially distinguished ones, of Movieland's celebrities. He started playing darkroom games, lengthening, for instance, Jimmy Durante's nose. None of these distortions is included in this show. In 1953 he published "Naked Hollywood." Nobody much noticed. The volume rightly flopped. Weegee's day was over. Arthur Fellig died of a brain tumor in 1968.