Night and the City

Flash: The Making of Weegee the Famous BY Christopher Bonanos. Henry Holt and Co.. Hardcover, 400 pages. $32.

The cover of Flash: The Making of Weegee the Famous

The tabloid photographer Arthur Fellig, better known as Weegee, produced many iconic New York City images, but one in particular, taken in December 1940 in the East Village, captures the quintessence of his life and career. The photo presents a slain gangster, one Lewis Sandano, facedown on the pavement, partially covered by what appears to be a crumpled and bloodied sheet of butcher paper; a policeman stands beside the corpse and takes notes with businesslike aplomb. But this otherwise ordinary crime-scene image offers a wry comedic twist—dominating the foreground of the frame, hovering over the body, is a lamppost mailbox that bears the official request MAIL EARLY FOR DELIVERY BEFORE CHRISTMAS. The grisly subject, deadpan humor, and compositional showmanship (much debated at the time was whether the body had been moved to make the joke) are all trademarks of Weegee’s art. His attentiveness to the viewer, the voyeur, and the witness—in this instance the impassive cop—marks his chronicle of mayhem as distinctive and revelatory. As a freelance photographer, he prowled the streets in a Chevy with his Speed Graphic camera and police radio, arriving on the scene while the blood oozed and the flames still rose. These images came to define the sensibility of New York between the wars.

Like many of the artists who came to prominence during the Depression, Weegee arrived at Ellis Island as a child from Europe, in his case the Ukraine. He grew up on the Lower East Side. Around 1913, he dropped out of the seventh grade and, according to Christopher Bonanos’s Flash: The Making of Weegee the Famous, had a “life-changing” experience when a street photographer took his picture. Fascinated by the technical process of producing tintypes—the complex camera, dunking the slide in an alkaline solution—he soon acquired his own kit. He began his freelance career in suitably opportunistic fashion: He would grab a kid on the street, prop them up on a pony, shoot, and then peddle the pictures to the child’s mother. Bonanos reports that the horse ate all his profits, but Weegee still learned a lesson in professionalism: “He washed the children’s faces, too, later saying, ‘That’s how I got pride in my work.’” Another lesson—this one stylistic—grew out of the experience. He printed on high-contrast paper in order to give the kids, as he described it, the “nice white, chalky faces” their immigrant parents preferred.

Weegee (Arthur Fellig), The Critic, 1943, gelatin silver print, 10 3/8 × 13". © International Center of Photography.
Weegee (Arthur Fellig), The Critic, 1943, gelatin silver print, 10 3/8 × 13". © International Center of Photography.

His first real job was at the New York Times drying fresh prints and negatives; the task conferred a nickname, “Squeegee Boy.” It was this rather mundane origin, Bonanos reveals, rather than his so-called Ouija-like prescience about crime and catastrophe, that led to the nickname Weegee. Capitalizing on a newspaper war between the Daily News and the Daily Mirror, he sold both tabloids pictures through a photo agency. The cagey, self-promoting Weegee of legend emerges from this moment, when rampant crime and competition for scoops fed a citywide fascination with increasingly morbid depictions of sin’s wages. He donned a doctor’s white coat to gain access to the hospital room where Dutch Schultz was dying, and paid, as he bragged, “special attention to the bullet holes in his chest”; he photographed himself (via a tripod and cable release) peering into a trunk stuffed with the contorted corpse of a mobster; he snapped another dead gangster lazily sprawled on the sidewalk, the victim’s bright-white straw hat unbent and unblemished. “I gave them all my love and care,” Weegee said. “Made ’em look like they were just taking a little rest.”

He hit his stride in the late ’30s, producing many of his most poignant and enduring pictures, and won his long battle for credit in the papers (his work had previously appeared without attribution). He became a name brand, a photographer who often wrote his own sardonic captions, and more and more an artist attuned to compositional nuance and human drama. A paddy-wagon shot of two seated men shows them only from the waist down: “Factory Frankie,” a mob insider, sports a suit and polished shoes; the other guy, a low-ranking dockworker in the organization, wears dungarees and beat-up oxfords. Although Weegee shot numerous fires, one of his most memorable such images might be that of a mother and daughter who had escaped their burning tenement, leaving family members behind. Each woman’s face contorts with agony; the mother casts her face upward, likely at the building they just fled, while her daughter—her face illuminated by the flash—regards the camera, imploring us for empathy or perhaps privacy.

Further exposing the voyeurism and anonymity of city life is a photo taken on Prince Street. A body lies in the doorway of a tenement, but Weegee shoots from afar so as to take in most of two buildings; from nearly every window onlookers crane to observe the spectacle. The photo appeared in Life magazine, and Bonanos tracked down Vito Cosenza, who was then seven and recalls, “There’s a little face on the third floor, looking out. That’s me.” Focusing on the spectators’ response to violence, Weegee foreshadowed the sense of isolation and indifference that would crystallize around the Kitty Genovese case some decades later.

By the early ’40s the murder rate had declined, and Weegee, who was losing interest in those bodies that did turn up (“I don’t waste my genius on most of them”), turned to documenting proletarian New York, broadening his audience to include the socially conscious members of the Photo League and curators at the Museum of Modern Art, who were newly aware of the artistic qualities of photojournalism. Two recent residents of an all-white block in Washington Heights—an African American mother and her one-year-old son—are photographed at their front door, its glass shattered by rocks thrown by neighbors. Bonanos correctly notes that the image could easily stand alongside work by Dorothea Lange or Walker Evans. Weegee had an intimate and unsentimental understanding of poverty. A photo of eight children sleeping in disarray on a fire escape surely recalled the summer nights of his own youth, yet the merciless lighting reveals the children’s dirty feet and bruises, the stains on the blankets.

Weegee might have left the corpses behind, but he could hardly abandon his antic, satiric sense of humor or his willingness to cheat when necessary. In what Bonanos dubs “one of the most famous images of the twentieth century,” two jewel-and-fur-draped ladies arrive at the Metropolitan Opera and confidently approach the camera. Just off to the side, a gritty, disheveled woman scowls at them. Each embodies a prescribed role: The two wear tiaras on coiffed heads while the other clutches her bags as if they are her only possessions. But maybe too much so; Weegee denied staging the confrontation, but years later his assistant admitted that the photographer had plied the woman with booze and put her into play. Nevertheless, the photo, known as The Critic, propelled him into an upper tier of artists—a display at MoMA, gallery shows, a meeting with Alfred Stieglitz, and eventually Naked City, a book of collected photos. With this newfound recognition well beyond the grimy quarters of tabloid readers and police precincts, he had truly earned his self-made honorific, “Weegee the Famous.”

Of course, Hollywood came calling, and Weegee lent his book title and some city savvy to Jules Dassin’s film of the same name, which quite unusually for that time was shot on location on the streets of New York. He pressed producer Mark Hellinger for a role but settled for a cameo. In Los Angeles he turned his attention to more bit parts, set photography, and portraits of movie stars. He found a fellow newsman in Stanley Kubrick, who had worked as a press photographer for Look magazine before becoming a filmmaker. Weegee took the set photos for Dr. Strangelove and trained his eye on the director, catching him framing shots and peering into camera lenses. “Once again,” Bonanos comments, “the voyeur photographed the watcher—and was there ever a more acutely focused watcher than Stanley Kubrick?” Back in New York he joined a club devoted to cheesecake photos and managed to produce an image that stands with his best—a shot of Bettie Page in a bathing suit, taken from just behind her as she stands, arms akimbo, under glaring spotlights, while some half dozen men aim their cameras at her.

The incriminatory nature of the photo extends to Weegee himself and beyond—to a voyeuristic culture. A drunken woman drafted to perform as an outcast or the mailbox message over Lewis Sandano’s body make it easy to gawk at misery and murder. It was different a few years later when Weegee arrived in Williamsburg to document the demise of a gambler named Peter Mancuso, who had been shot in the head and heart. Weegee did not photograph the body but instead turned from within the circle around it to capture the varied faces of the throng—mostly children—assembled to gawk or grieve. The tumultuous bodies and intensity of emotion evoke Caravaggio, even as the scene feels utterly contemporary. We know these people. The dead man’s aunt sobs openmouthed; the kids jostle one another, some trying to gain a better view, others to greet the camera with toothy grins; the eyes of a small girl at the center of the image, almost next to the wailing aunt, are aflame with an insistent desire to see. Her excitement charges the frame with anticipation. Whatever fills her wide and seemingly greedy eyes isn’t available to us; we must imagine it. Weegee titled this frenzied tableau Their First Murder. This one, he made clear, isn’t about the bodies or the killers; this photo is about the thrill of looking. It’s about us.

Albert Mobilio’s most recent book is Games and Stunts (Black Square Editions, 2017).