THE INDEPENDENT VOICE OF THE VISUAL ARTS
by Tom Mullaney
New York City, in the 1930s and 1940s, spanned the extremes of economic depression and wartime victory. New York was the American metropolis of that era, a mecca of excitement and untold ambition.
It was radio and newspapers’ golden age. The city supported nearly a dozen morning and afternoons papers that competed furiously for readers with news exclusives sprinkled among tales of crime, sex, scandal and catastrophe. To complement news stories, the papers’ appetite for photos was huge, the more sensational the better.
It was a heyday time for photojournalists when the maxim “a picture is worth a thousand words” was never truer. And the photojournalist who stands out during that period was Arthur Fellig, better known as “Weegee”.
Weegee was indefatigable in always being Johnny-on-the-Spot at any crime scene, fire, car crash or high society spectacle. He covered it all. His big box camera and oversize flash got the shot editors wanted. He wrote about one of his jobs: “A check from LIFE: two murders, thirty-five dollars. LIFE pays $5 a bullet. One stiff had 5 bullets in him and the other had two.” His fame climbed to where he became a one-name phenomenon as he is known to this day. He had two advantages over the competition: a police radio installed in his car and his habit of working the night beat when the papers’ staff photographers were not on call.
A 1929 writer said about him, “Weegee’s night out could never have happened in any other city. I’m sure of that…Only New York could give him that kind of time.” Weegee said the city was “the most charming woman I have ever met. Her philosophy precisely agreed with mine.”
Weegee’s career started with working in the darkrooms of other photographers and some newspapers, including the New York Times and Acme Newspictures. In addition to sheer talent, he possessed speed, accuracy and skill in the darkroom.
He left Acme in 1935 to go freelance, unhappy at not receiving credit for his published work. He left New York City in 1947 to pursue an acting career in Hollywood that fizzled. He returned to the city in 1952. By then, his heyday had passed, though he continued photographing until his death in 1968.
Human Head Cake Box Murder, c. 1940.
The book’s publication followed a circuitous route. Weegee’s photos were stored in the archives of the Newspaper Enterprise Association (N.E.A.) archive. N.E.A. then sold Acme to the news syndicate, United Press International (UPI) in the early 1950s. In 2012, the archive of 359 photos, taken between 1929 and 1946, was discovered in a Midwest storage facility where it had been housed since 1994.
The book is edited by Daniel Blau, a Munich gallery owner, who acquired the archive and clearly idolizes Weegee and his art. Photos are divided into 13 categories that show the breadth of Weegee’s world such as Crowds, Crime, Fine (society folk) and Dead.
At the Palace Theater, 1945.
Of course, the great majority are not classics, but photos taken on assignment. However, a good number are. He was highly adept at framing his shots so that they achieved peak effect. Weegee’s goal was to provide blanket coverage of all the aspects that made New York such a unique place.
We must see his vast output as governed by the newspaper ethos of the day: Shoot it quick and dirty. Weegee did not have the luxury of setting-up time. He was clearly no Ansel Adams. But many photos have an energy, particularly the crime series, that is palpable. He was a human time capsule, freezing people and irreplaceable moments from that era.
The book has been produced with great care and is fun to peruse. The design, befitting the subject, is outsized. It features an extra-long horizontal format with many full-page shots for maximum impact. Each new page can bring a fresh discovery, such as the unbridled revelry following the end of World War II. As I flipped the pages, I often reconnected with the look of New York and the people of that time and my youth.
The photos are accompanied by short, vintage wire copy blurbs that identify the depicted scene for a charming touch. Most of the book’s 359 vintage photos are appearing for the first time.
The book confirms Weegee’s place in the pantheon of great street photographers. Now that the once-hard lines between high and low culture are obliterated, Weegee can take his place alongside Brassai, Jacob Riis and other museum-quality photographers.
“Extra! Weegee,” edited by Peter Blau,
Hirmer Publishers ff.
distributed by University of Chicago Press
Tom Mullaney is NAE’s Senior Editor. He spent his boyhood on New York City streets and read that city’s tabloid press with all its gore.
Trolley Tracks, c. 1940.s