Mark Athitakis is a writer in Phoenix and author of “The New Midwest.”
Hear the word “noir,” and the image that pops into your head probably resembles a black-and-white Weegee photograph. A dead mobster on the sidewalk. Tenement children sleeping on a fire escape. Wild-eyed murder suspects. In the 1930s and 1940s, hordes of newspaper photographers prowled New York’s streets hunting for shots of the city’s underbelly. Weegee, born Arthur Fellig, stood out among them thanks to talent, hustle and a remarkable lack of a conventional social life.
Perhaps that’s why Christopher Bonanos’s appropriately gritty biography, “Flash,” is subtitled the “making” of Weegee, not the “life” of him. He grew up in a family of poor Jewish immigrants but was distant from it. A marriage in his late 40s fizzled fast; he treated another late-life companion more like an assistant than a girlfriend. He liked prostitutes and was often a leering boor. But a detached, voyeuristic temperament was perfect for his line of work, and his taste for dark, ironic humor helped define noir’s visual vocabulary. In a photo of a bouillon-cube factory blaze, a sign reading “Simply Add Boiling Water” is visible amid the firehose sprays. In another photo, a sobbing woman is splayed on the ground, perhaps flung there by the angry man standing by her. A nearby Coke sign reads “Ice Cold.”
Weegee — the moniker was inspired either by Ouija boards or “squeegee boys” working in newspaper darkrooms — gave photojournalism a household name at a time when most of its practitioners were anonymous. But his journalistic ethics were questionable. That shot of kids on a fire escape was probably staged, as was one of his most famous images, of a drunk homeless woman sizing up a pair of bejeweled society matrons. And he wasn’t above a little melodrama: He gave a photograph of grieving survivors of a tenement fire the caption “I Cried When I Took This Picture.”
Weegee, Bonanos writes, “was a messenger from the indecorous parts of the city to its nicer ones,” but the public’s appetite for that message was fickle. Bonanos is especially skilled at tracking how Weegee’s blood-in-the-gutter style became obsolete thanks to squeaky-clean postwar attitudes, politicized photojournalism that he largely rejected and newspapers’ flagging fortunes. But until his death in 1968, he kept his name circulating, from amateur cinema-verite films to books to uncredited movie-still and ad gigs. Hungry for attention and money but culturally out of step, he developed a distortion lens that he used for gimmicky effects — three-eyed men, four-breasted women. Luridness giveth and taketh away, and by the ’60s he’d “been eaten alive by his own image,” Bonanos writes.
In the book’s closing pages, Bonanos attempts to nudge Weegee’s work into the halls of high art: Diane Arbus loved him, major museums exhibited him, future photographers were inspired by him. But high art was never his ambition, and his sensibility in his waning years was closer to schlockmeisters like Russ Meyer than provocateurs like Arbus. The masses didn’t always share Weegee’s brand of obsession with sex and violence. But for a brief, electrifying moment in American life, they were in perfect sync.
By Christopher Bonanos
Henry Holt. 379 pp. $32