The Photographic Career of Usher "Weegee" Fellig, the "Predecessor of Noise" and "Chatter"

by Christopher John Stephens

28 September 2017

A collection of 620 photos of New Yorkers in the '30s and '40s, many never-before-seen, from the legendary photojournalist Usher "Weegee" Fellig (1899-1968.)
 

The remarkable staying power in the photographs of Arthur “Weegee” Fellig, most famous for his nighttime photographs of life in New York City in the ‘30s and ‘40s, is probably due more to what they influenced than what they actually are. The oeuvre of James Ellroy and his desperate tabloid characters in “L.A. Confidential” and “The Black Dahlia” are distant cousins. Great Hollywood film noir like Out of the Past, Double Indemnity, and The Postman Always Rings Twice drew direct inspiration from Weegee’s hard-edged reality. The novel (and film) Mildred Pierce drew from the untouched natural beauty of the real women in Weegee’s pictures. The romance of New York in 1929-1946 was created by this image of “The Naked City”. It was the city of eight million stories, the city that never slept, and Weegee captured everything.

The world Weegee captured was about death, crime, accidents, and unrepentant criminals. That’s the immediate and easy connection most fans of photojournalism will make. Extra! Weegee, edited by Daniel Blau, is a comprehensive and compelling collection of scandalous sensations, smirking murderers, blood-scattered corpses, mangled cars and burning buildings. Weegee caught the catastrophes but he also caught the ecstasy of audiences at a Jimmy Dorsey concert, a Frank Sinatra sock hop, a Chinatown celebration at the end of WWII, and a 1931 “Colored Miss America” contest featuring (as the included newspaper caption noted) “sepia-tinted beauties”. What we see in these pictures, as we skim through the many sections, (“Extra! Crash”, “Extra! Crowds”, and so on, everything extra) is not a stylized ugliness so much as a truth that reveals itself gradually, with at times striking clarity.

An introduction from photojournalist expert Ryan Adams paints a picture of Weegee as a character who knew how to market himself. “In his own mind, he was the only individual, a cigar-wielding visual narrator, who could tell the story of his restless city.” The 1992 film The Public Eye, starring Joe Pesci, suitably captured a Weegee-like character of the ‘40s. Pesci’s short, pudgy, cigar-chomping character imposed himself on scenes as the man himself apparently did. The problem with creating yourself as a character is that it sometimes overwhelms the quality of the work. Extra! Weegee does a good job not in recuperating an image that was never really shattered so much as providing a full spectrum of a fantastic career.

Adams notes that the photos in this book “…originate from the Newspaper Enterprise Association (N.E.A.) archive. N.E.A. was founded [in] 1902… focused on national events, feature stories, cartoons, and illustrations.” By the ‘20s, when the archive decided to incorporate photographs, the timing was perfect for Weegee.  While the transference of archives, corporations, and syndicates over a period of time can sometimes mean great historical documents are lost in the shuffle, Weegee’s work didn’t suffer. Adams continues: “The physical N.E.A. photo archive never left Cleveland after UPI’s founding in 1958.” In 2012, he discovered the Weegee archive in a Midwest storage facility where it had been housed since its purchase 18 years earlier. The photos in this book were exhibited along with work from Margaret Bourke-White and Robert Capa, three distinctly American photographers whose black and white images shimmer with every possible color in our emotional rainbows.

In his 2016 introduction, Editor Daniel Blau starts with a plain admission: “I never really liked Weegee.” Perhaps this was due to the character the photographer had created as an imposing gnome. Blau attributes it to the design of the ‘80s-era book he had of Weegee’s work. The photos showed no greys, just stark black and white. Later, Blau notes of Weegee’s work: “He mastered the alchemy of creating a permanent image-fixing it. He brewed his potion on the cauldron that was his camera.” While Extra! Weegee is not intended as a biography of the man himself, it’s interesting to note that Weegee’s turn from still photography to life as an actor before the camera was unsuccessful, and he returned to work behind the camera for the last years of his life. Blau notes that motion picture work was irrelevant. “By then he had already made all the films he wanted. All films made of a single frame. All telling story in one take. Today I love these short films.”

In her essay “Weegee Le Magnifique”, writer Sydney Picasso notes how film was the dominating force of 20th century storytelling. From the early days of Life and Time magazines, and such photographers as Eisenstein and Kubrick who understood the power of still images (as well as moving), Weegee understood that grabbing the night beat was a reasonably opportunistic move for his career. “He saw that the staff photographers of most newspapers were not on call at night, so his work began around 7pm… He calculated that there was one murder per night. His obsession with statistics was very strong… The click of the shutter echoed the ‘kerchunk’ of the cash register.”

What matters to Sydney Picasso and others involved with this book is what should matter to the discerning reader, and though it’s primarily filled with photographs, it takes time to read and absorb and understand. Picasso notes that Weegee’s images come “…as a rush of memory, of proof and of meaning… Weegee was a perpetrator of ‘noise,’ the predecessor of ‘chatter.”

Understanding what this means requires that 21st century readers divorce themselves from the intrusion of Instagram, the futility of Facebook, and the stupidity of selfies. There are shots of the man himself, and he did (as noted) attempt an acting career, but this book is primarily about the “other” in his work.

Many of the captions accompanying these photos are as remarkable as the images. In Extra! Crash, two men sit “in the wreckage of a borrowed car, pondering how they’re going to explain…” One has an Errol Flynn-style mustache. Both are bandaged and sitting as if posed. In another shot, more visually stunning, we see a car moments after it’s crashed through the railing of an overhead ramp. It’s shot from the street below. The car is perched on a roof, and two men are standing underneath, seemingly oblivious to what’s happened. The viewer is left with one question: did the roof give out moments after this picture was taken?

The “Extra! Crowds” section features some of the more remarkable moments if only for their clarity and diversity. The caption for one says it all: “WHO SAID PEOPLE ARE ALL ALIKE.” In the picture, over a dozen people are looking at “…the blood-splattered body of a small-time racketeer…” A female relative is weeping, a little girl is bug-eyed, and a dark-haired girl is glaring into the camera’s lens. It’s a toe-headed boy who draws our greatest interest. He’s grinning almost maniacally as if he’s watching a horse race or boxing match. A million stories can be drawn from these faces. In a two-page spread of people staring at the skies, some of the captions are awkward: (“A necktie-less man gazes up”), and another, from 1945, seems to go out of its way to be offensive:

“A Chinaman, wearing a White Panama in spite of the rain, gapes skyward and reveals his emotion, though his rage usually maintains an impassive expression.”

In “Extra! Fire”, some of the shots seem impossible, as if taken from a helicopter or movie crane. A flurry of pigeons fly through a cloud of smoke above a rooftop in a New York City neighborhood. The streams of high-powered water aimed at a burning St. Mary’s Greek Catholic Church on Lexington Avenue look like laser beams. Many of the shots echo images a modern viewer might connect with Ground Zero on 9/11. Charred embers and billows of smoke will always be haunting, and this section sizzles with immediacy and grief.

“Extra! Fest” properly follows with pictures like “HEP CATS IN A HURRY”, in which a random collection of Jimmy Dorsey fans run for a front row seat in the Roxy Theater to see their hero. Later, we see effigies of Hitler. In “No ‘Long Underwear’ Here”, Weegee goes inside the Roxy to capture jazz fans dancing in the aisle at the Dorsey show. Images of Little Italy and other immigrant neighborhoods show ecstatic people embracing family and what it meant (for them) to be part of the American fabric.

In a 1944 photo “Frankie! Give us Frankie!” we see women in a crowd cheering as if at a ball game. They “…almost go mad with joy as their beloved appears on the stage of the Paramount…” In a photo captioned “HE WANTS ANOTHER FIGHT?” that appears later in the chapter, a sailor is among the August 1945 celebrants at the end of WWII. He’s surrounded by four beauties and holding a sign that says it all: “$2000 in Bank—Now I’m looking for a wife.” Later, the racism of earlier captions has disappeared as a Chinese man and a child, in Chinatown, celebrate the end of WWII. The man is beaming with happiness, holding two American flags and the child as they take part in the largest celebration to date in Chinatown.

What we know about New York society seems to have had its roots in the “Extra! Fine” chapter. In a photo captioned “The Human Touch”, four soldiers look on in wonder at two beauties on their way to an opera. “The khaki-clad quartet was given more than one opportunity to emit their sounds of approval…” In “The Critic”, a bedraggled-looking woman seems disgusted at the sight of two Grande dames dressed for an opening night at The Met. “She is aghast at the quantity of diamonds in evidence… but the bejeweled ladies are aware only of Weegee’s clicking camera.” The photo “Times Square before Blackout” is a stunning look at lights, electrical ribbons in the dark sky.

The “Extra! Dead” chapter features what many may perceive as the essence of Weegee. Wisely, it’s positioned deep in the book. In “Crash Victim”, we see police and a crowd around a dead body. The corpse is covered in newspapers. They’re in front of a movie house showing a film titled Joy of Living. In another photo, two men dressed in glowing white tuxedos are among those looking at a corpse on Elizabeth Street.

The “Extra! Help” chapter features a picture captioned “Police Protection”. A police officer in a black rain cape, looking like Batman, has his left arm stretched out, covering a small child. Some of the drama is unbearable without being imposing. One picture, not captioned, features the daughter of a newly slain man. “If you know the hit and run driver…” we read, “show him this picture of the mingled grief, terror, and despair…”

Weegee certainly had a universal eye, and we see it in the “Extra! Crime” chapter. In “Naughty Boys”, two hoodlums unapologetically flip off Weegee’s camera. In “Muggers in Line-up”, three newly-arrested suspects pose with distinctly different reactions: regret, smugness, shame. By the time we reach the “Extra! Friends” chapter, we are completely in the thralls of Weegee’s world. A three-year-old boy celebrating the New Year poses behind a sign reading “Me? I Feel Fine!” He’s wearing a polka-dot bow-tie, holding a baby bottle, and grinning.

By the end, with “Extra! Characters”, the Weegee world is complete. Father Divine, referred to in the 1937 newspaper caption as “The Dapper Little Negro”, grins after having been taken into custody for felonious assault. In another, a Bowery boy bum hides his face in shame while another grins. In “Thanksgiving Ragamuffin”, a man in unconvincing drag (dress and mink stole and his pants seen below) smiles as he stands in the entrance of a paddy wagon. In “Caught in Movie Theater”, two female fugitives sit before Weegee’s camera, unapologetic and ready for the next shoe to drop. Later in the chapter, two boys display to the camera swastikas that had been carved into their arms. Unfortunately, this picture, dated 18 September 1944 seems as frightening (if not more so) today than 73 years ago. For Weegee, the past is always present.

The collection of photographs contained within Extra! Weegee is stunning not only in their scope of human experience and emotion but also the immediacy of their composition. Weegee knew what to capture and why it was worth capturing. In an age when Kim Kardashian can release a bestselling photo book of selfies, there needs to be the real work found in Extra! Weegee. The former will fade in the glare of daylight while the latter—as every photo here proves—will only grow in power, beauty, and relevance.

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