See images from Weegee’s most productive decade

Howard Greenberg Gallery opens a retrospective in the photographer’s hometown of New York

Never has this valuable maxim been truer than in the case of the godfather of reportage photography, Weegee, who was prolific in shooting people on the streets of New York’s Lower East Side in the 1930s and 1940s.

I had so many unsold murder pictures lying around my room. I felt as if I were renting out a wing of the city morgue – Weegee

His black and white images need no captions, leave little room for explanation and deliver much more than just a story; they have heart. They depict scenes of everyday urban life. And lest we forget, great photos and art are like good jokes. If you have to explain them, they aren’t that special.

Accordingly, Weegee developed this astonishing style out of necessity. His early photographs, intended to enable New York immigrants who had little command of the English language to keep abreast of news events, were featured in tabloids such as The Daily News, The New York World Telegram and The New York Post, whose editors demanded sensation in time for the first edition, before the blood stains were washed off the streets. “If it bleeds, it leads”, was the sneering rallying call of the day’s tabloids. And given the violent times (prohibition fuelling the fires of Mob activity, causing warfare between the Mafia bosses Joe Masseria and Salvatore Maranzano), there was more than enough bloodletting to satisfy both readers and editors.

Indeed, one gets the feeling that the gangster’s body on the floor in Weegee’s 1936 'Corpse With Revolver' might still be warm, while his battered and bruised 'Cop Killer of 1941' looks as if he might step out of the frame and kill again. Weegee’s images tell of murder, gangland, fire, horribly mangled car crashes and the joyous underbelly of New York City. Weegee’s images sweat authenticity. They are film noir personified.

Yet, to achieve his aims, Weegee refused any discipline and swerved and all rules. He had no time for technique or artifice or pretence. His work was not governed by art. He grew out of an industrial darkroom, not college. His work was not symbolic and neither was it a celebration of his subject. Even though photography was everything to him, it was his vocation, which put food in his mouth. All he desired was to do his thing, make enough cash to be comfortable and garner enough fame and notoriety to facilitate sexual congress with females of an attractive nature.

He achieved these ambitions, together with, once the whiff of tabloid sensationalism had long gone, a reputation as a genius. He was a truly great photographer whose raw compassionate images, such as 'Easter Sunday In Harlem' (1940), eclipse anything that his middle class imitators (Diane Arbus, Robert Frank) might produce decades later. As with his Eastern European counterpart, Brassai (the contemporaries were born three months and roughly 400 miles apart), one gets the feeling that Weegee was cut from the same cloth as those he photographed: a man from the street, shooting people on the street. His photos were never patronising or voyeuristic.

When you find yourself beginning to feel a bond between yourself and the people you photograph, when you laugh and cry with their laughter and tears, you will know you are on the right track – Weegee

Weegee wasn’t taking shots looking into the fish tank; he was right in there with the piranhas and the goldfish, fighting for survival and taking his life in his hands. He shot in decidedly dangerous neighbourhoods where few would dare tread. But Weegee was in his element, because that was where he came from.

He was born Usher Fellig on 12 June 1899 in Zlockow, in the former Austrian Province of Galicia, now part of the Ukraine. His devoutly Jewish parents, Bernard and Rachel, owned a grocery store but lost the business several years later. In 1909 his mother and her four sons followed their father to New York. At Ellis Island the officer who handled the young boy’s immigration anglicised his name to Arthur. Subsequently, the family lived in a three-room cold water flat in the then squalid Lower East Side, and shared a toilet with three other families.

Immigrant life on the Lower East Side was tough back then. Jewish gangsters such as Arnold Rothstein and Waxey Gordon ruled their roost with iron fists, while unemployment, disease and poverty were all the rage. Survival was especially hard for the Felligs, as papa refused to work on the Sabbath, which, considering he was now selling crockery in a barrow and Saturday was market day, was of no use to his family whatsoever. Under pressure, young Arthur thus found himself on the street aged 12 selling newspapers.

He left school at 14 and started washing dishes at the Automat. He sold candy at burlesque shows. He lived on his wits. His Damascene moment came after a tintype smudger (street photographer) took his photo on a donkey. As a result he bought his own tintype kit and a pony and wandered the ghetto taking shots of kids, selling the images to their proud parents. Unfortunately his endeavours came to an end after his wages couldn’t cover the cost of the stables.

Ultimately, the intense religious observance that enveloped the Fellig household (his father became a Rabbi) caused the young man to leave home, aged 18, with not a dime. He slept rough. He stood in queues for food with bums. He stayed in missions. Eventually he got a job with the Adler Photo studios in Lower Manhattan as a darkroom assistant, but left after two years when both pay rise and promotion failed to materialise.

What I did anybody can do. But I am a perfectionist. When I take a picture... it’s gotta be good – Weegee

But the young man’s impatience served him well. In 1921 he obtained a part time position in the darkroom at Wide World Photos (a subsidiary of the New York Times). Seeing the machinations of a major newspaper, he grasped exactly what was needed to get your shots on the front page. In 1924 he started at Acme Newspictures and worked in the darkroom for $20 a week. He was happy. “The smell of the developing and hypo chemicals was intoxicating,” he explains in his autobiography, Weegee by Weegee (1961). “I was learning photography in the darkroom. When I went out to do my own pictures later I was able to envisage how they would look in the enlarger.”

After two years of being up to his elbows in developer, the time was nigh for him to move up the ladder and take some photos. Typically, he refused to conform to the company’s rule that photographers wear a white shirt and a tie when covering a story, and was only allowed to leave the office and take pictures after dark, for emergencies, most of which were fires.

Slowly, as his fellow lens men slept, Weegee was getting the upper hand, expanding his horizons by taking smudges of hoodlums, traffic accidents, arrests and murders. Using his trusty 4x6 inch ICA German Trix, he set his aperture at f/16 and speed at 1/200 of a second, stood about 10 feet away from his subjects and became one of the first photographers to employ a flash bulb. Weegee mastered the craft. His sharply contrasting, dramatic graphic images defined and revealed the era.

For the next 11 years Weegee, just like Brassai, took photos only at night. He supplemented his meagre income by playing the fiddle in a Third Avenue movie theatre. After eight years his wages had risen slowly to $50 a week. His forte (and pride and joy) was to be first at the scene of a crime or accident and getting his shots to the wire agencies and syndicated before the competition. He once developed pictures in the driver’s cab of the subway train from Battery to Midtown.

On another occasion he was asked to cover a world championship boxing match at the Polo Grounds, so rented an ambulance. “After the first knockout I’d get in the ambulance and hide and a messenger would get the exposed holder to me,” he clarified in his memoirs. “Then with sirens blaring, red lights flashing and cops clearing the way we’d make a mad rush downtown. While the ambulance sped I lay on the floor developing the glass negative. Another scoop for Acme!” The story goes that an Acme staffer joked that Weegee must have used a Ouija board to scoop the story. The phonetic nickname stuck.

The man lived and sweated photography. After losing all his wages in a staff crap game, Weegee moved out of his seedy lodging house into the Acme darkroom, sleeping on a shelf and living off Campbell’s soup, Heinz baked beans and Uneeda biscuits. He was evicted from the darkroom in 1935 after revealing himself by scooping a plane crash story off the staff ticker tape at 4am.

Acme should have turned a blind eye. The following year, Weegee went freelance and started making a real name for himself. He rented a room behind the Manhattan Police Headquarters and wired up a radio so that he could be the first to hear the police and fire brigade signals from the dispatcher. For a while he rode with the cops to the scene but later bought his own 1938 Chevy Coupe, shortwave radio forever on alert. He often arrived at the scene before the rozzers.

Crime was my oyster. I liked it! If I had a picture of two handcuffed criminals being booked, I would cut the picture in half and get five bucks for each – Weegee

Somehow, he finagled a key to the darkroom of the New York Post. After he had enough disasters and conflagrations in his pocket, he’d totter off, develop the photographs and do the rounds of the newspaper picture desks, selling his shots of murder and mayhem for $5 a pop.

By 1939 the Daily Mirror and Daily News had no option but to rely on Weegee for all their coverage of any fire, murder or crime that happened after dark. As a result, he made a name for himself and rather wryly demanded to be credited as Weegee the Famous.

Sure. I’d like to live regular. Go home to a good-looking wife, a hot dinner, and a husky kid. But I guess
I got film in my blood. I love this racket. It’s exciting. It’s dangerous. It’s funny. It’s tough.
 It’s heartbreaking – Weegee

But give him his due: it was Weegee who was largely responsible for the quantum shift in newspaper reporting. Until now, newspaper photos had illustrated the text, but after Weegee, the balance changed. The photo was now all, and it was the photographer who determined the parameters of the story. Weegee had pioneered the discipline through sheer necessity. He was the unrivalled the master of single image storytelling. First on the scene, he would peruse the scenario and often position himself so that, within the frame, a street sign or advertisement might add a sardonic twist.

Pity the journalist who supplied comment beneath Weegee’s shot of a dead body under a load of newspapers beneath a cinema that advertises a movie entitled Joy of Living, while his 1944 photograph Wrong Way, picturing a car crashed on to the roof of Grand Central Station above a traffic sign that says One Way, hits the nail on the proverbial. Sometimes he got lucky with his leitmotif: his shot of a burning building with a frankfurter advertisement four stories up proclaiming “Just add boiling water” is a case in point. To achieve this incredible image, he had to pull up the goods with expert use of his flashgun and deft dalliance with the extremely volatile flash powder, which he sprinkled on the floor and lit as he pressed the shutter.

Weegee’s shots often tell of the chaos of urban life. He avoided taking pictures of fires, instead concentrating on the firemen; not the gangsters but their dead bodies; not the corpses but the shocked spectators ('Their First Murder', 1941); and not the car crash but the distraught wife ('And The Living Suffer', 1941) whose husband has just died in his delivery truck. “All burning buildings look alike,” said the photographer in a radio interview in 1951. “I took shots of those who were affected by it, like the one of the mother
and daughter in grief next to the fire truck. The firemen told me the fire was a roast, which is what they say when someone is still left in the building, and here the mother looks up in hope that her child stuck in the building will survive while her daughter realises the truth. This photo haunted me for the rest of my life. Some editors got it and others didn’t.”

Still, in his first decade as a freelancer he took some of the greatest “killing shots” ever realised. He estimated that he photographed some 5,000 murders. “Sometimes I used Rembrandt side lighting, not letting too much blood show,” he explained in his mythologised memoir. “And I made the stiff look real cosy, as if he were taking a short nap. But murders were easy to shoot because the stiff is on the ground and couldn’t get up and walk away or get temperamental.”

The man himself looked as though he had stepped out of one of the era’s many film noir flicks: battered homburg, greasy scrambled egg tie, big square Speed Graphic camera in hand with the huge flash gun; chewing on a cigar butt, loosely fat in scruffy creased suits that were a size too big, his pockets bulging with spare flash bulbs and film. It’s little wonder he influenced the look of classic movies such as American film noir Double Indemnity (1944).

A walking, talking caricature, the public lapped Weegee up. He and his photos seemed like missives from another planet. He delivered an alternative reality to the doorsteps of the New York working stiff: an arena that few had experienced and most were very happy to avoid. In 1940 he started working for the ground breaking New York daily newspaper PM, where the picture editor, William McCleery aimed to set a new standard for news photography. Now given carte blanche to set out his own stall, Weegee expanded his oeuvre by embarking on a series of shots that, not based in the crime room, fully expressed his genius. Who might forget his 'Max The Bagel Man' (1940), stepping out of the darkness near to dawn, or the unconvincing transvestite getting out of a cop wagon in 'The Gay Deceiver' (1940), or 'Heat Spell' (1941), a rather tender image of four young children and a kitten sleeping outside on a tenement fire escape during the heat of summer? It’s the humanity of the man that stands out. Whereas Arbus always chose the ugliest shots of her subjects (to her they were like Carnie sideshow freaks), Weegee looked for the best, as any one of them might have been him. Simply, photography doesn’t get much better.

Even though by now he was distancing himself from blood bullets and burning buildings, in 1941, Weegee the Famous, not one to miss out on milking even his own notoriety, staged his first exhibition “Weegee: Murder is My Business”. He followed up with
two group shows at the Museum of Modern Art. Here, the dishevelled smudger unveiled his love and knowledge of another side of the city, which allowed the world a glimpse of exactly where he came from.

He shot regulars at his local bar, such as Shorty, the Bowery Cherub, New Year’s Eve (1943), which sees a three-foot midget in a nappy reaching up to the bar with one hand and drinking beer with the other. Girls Watching a Movie (1943) pictures a gang of young kids, one wide eyed, one asleep and another blowing a bubblegum bubble, seemingly uninterested in the film.

To get the shot, the lens man disguised himself as the cinema’s ice cream man and used infrared film and flash. It’s
not hard to see where the likes of Bruce Davidson or Richard Avedon looked for inspiration. John Szarkowski, the Museum of Modern Art’s perceptive photography curator, asserts that Weegee was “not a reporter but a fabulist”.

Ultimately it was the overwhelming success of his first photography book, Naked City (1945), that inspired Weegee to give up the blood and guts tabloid milieu. Suddenly, he was groovy. Vogue, Life and Seventeen commissioned the scruffy cigar- chomping snapper, and he began to make what he described as “lush money”. In short, Weegee was now a “face”, perhaps the most recognised news photographer in the US. His photos pre-empted the myriad monotone noir films that packed out the movie houses and as such, sold the rights of Naked City to a Hollywood studio. Consequently, he involved himself in filmmaking and, in 1948, made the 20-minute short New York, followed by another seven movies.

He left his beloved Manhattan and plotted up in Hollywood. He took to acting, playing a photographer in Every Girl Should Be Married (1948); a boxing timekeeper in Robert Wise’s landmark The Set Up (1949); and a bumin Journey Into Light (1951). But even though Weegee longed to be a part of the Hollywood Dream, he just didn’t fit in. He took some of the greatest ever shots of Marilyn Monroe (she loved the eccentric smudger), but his other more gimmicky shots of her distorted face exhibit nothing of the empathy that so distinguished the likes of 'The Vegetable Peddler' (1944), or 'Summer, Lower East Side' (1937), both of which ache with empathy. He returned to New York in 1952 having described LA as the “land of the zombies.”

In 1957, after developing diabetes, he moved in with Wilma Wilcox, a Quaker social worker whom he had known since the 1940s, and who cared for him and his work. He used what money he’d accrued to travel through Europe. He photographed for London’s Daily Mirror and The Times, and worked as special effects consultant for his devoted fan Stanley Kubrick in 1964’s Dr Strangelove.

On Christmas Day 1968 he died of a brain tumour in New York. He left 16,000 photographs and 7,000 negatives that were bequeathed to the International Center of Photography New York by Wilcox, his longtime companion.