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Truth or Fiction? 'Flash: The Making of Weegee the Famous'

In these times of so-called "fake news", Bonanos' biography of Weegee begs the question: If the truth of human nature is best demonstrated in a prearranged circumstance, does that make it any less true?

Flash: The Making of Weegee the Famous
Christopher Bonanos

Henry Holt and Company

Jun 2018

Other

Christopher Bonanos' impeccably researched biography of Weegee is also a history of newspaper photography and of the growth of New York City through the middle years of the 20th century. Weegee was already making photographs and trying to figure out how to make photography his career when the first tabloid, the New York Daily News, began in 1919 with the intent of making its mark by visually representing the news. Bonanos offers a lively history of the early years of news photography, rich with anecdotes that create Weegee's persona.

Weegee himself relates the story of leaving a World Series game and bribing the subway conductor to let him use the motorman's booth as a darkroom. While other photographers boarded the subway with negatives, Weegee already had developed photos when the subway reached his stop. Bonanos makes clear early on, however, that Weegee is not always a reliable narrator: his bravado and exaggeration are key to the identity of the impoverished Jewish immigrant, Arthur Fellig, who grew up to call himself "Weegee the Famous".

Much of Weegee's success is tied to his unusual workday, in which insomnia had its benefits. In the late '30s, Weegee was often able to have an exclusive or make the first photographs at a crime scene or other newsworthy event because he usually spent the night roaming New York City with an ear to the ground. He developed a familiar relationship with many members of organized crime syndicates, as they frequently found themselves at the same scenes. Another means of access for Weegee was his casual and friendly relationship with the police. Bonanos explains that Weegee, along with crime reporters, would hang around the police station, waiting for news to break. He befriended the officers and would bring them coffee or doughnuts, sometimes even traveling to a crime scene -- whether a murder, an armed robbery, or a car crash -- along with the police. Later, when he bought his first new car, he became the first civilian photographer to have a permit for a police radio. Perhaps those old acquaintances had a bigger payoff for Weegee.

Credit: International Center for Photography (courtesy of Henry Holt and Company)

Gladys MacKnight and Donald Wightman: just two all-American New Jersey teenagers who had murdered Gladys's mother with a hatchet.

After years of making such graphic and vivid photographs, Weegee began to shoot two sets of photos at a crime scene: the manicured and the visceral, since different news outlets had different needs. In changing his approach, Weegee began to realize that the photograph that communicated the most emotionally often was not the scene itself but its impact on others. For example, in 1937 Weegee photographed Frank Tapedino, who had been struck by a passing car, then snapped his sobbing daughter who had witnessed her father's injury from their apartment window above the street. The photos ran side by side, giving Weegee a powerful statement that ran in newspapers across the country.

Bonanos traces Weegee's development as a photographer as he thinks more about the composition of his images and their emotional impact. Running alongside this artistic growth is the transformation of an introverted, shy immigrant into a bold self-promoter who answered the phone as "the fabulous Weegee" and called himself "Weegee the Famous". His efforts included a good bit of grandstanding and myth-making as well. One of the more difficult issues in that myth-making is the question of capturing reality versus creating it.

Weegee admits posing a photo of a homeless man admiring the goods in a shop window at the Ritz-Carlton -- the photo was included in his first exhibition, at the Photo League in 1941. Whether a news photograph is primarily intended to be documentary or artistic continues to be an engaged debate. Bonanos asks the reader to consider the line between truth and art, and whether that line actually exists. When a slice of life photo turns out to be pre-arranged, the fervor is not about the quality of the image but about whether audiences feel angry for having been duped.

Opening night at the Metropolitan Opera, 1943: one of the most famous images of the twentieth century, and the one that cemented Weegee's reputation. Forty-odd years later, Weegee's assistant came clean, admitting that he and Weegee had gotten the disheveled woman drunk beforehand, then planted her at the scene.

One of Weegee's best-known photographs, "The Critic", also turns out to be staged: socialites Mrs. George Washington Kavanaugh and Elizabeth Wharton Drexel, having emerged from their limousine, are striding in to opening night at the Metropolitan Opera, only to be confronted by a drunken, shabbily dressed woman who leers at them. Weegee's assistant and fellow photographer, Louis Liotta, admitted later that they found the woman at Weegee's familiar hangout, Sammy's Bowery Follies, where they provided her with a good bit of wine and brought her with them to shoot at the Met. Bonanos effectively argues that the staged photographs might be forgivable because they are reworkings of situations that Weegee had experienced and photographed in the past. If the truth of human nature is best demonstrated in a prearranged circumstance, does that make it any less true?

World War II marked a transition in Weegee's photographs, but only a slight one: the same slice-of-life images that were, following Prohibition and the Depression, more prominent in his oeuvre, were put to service as documents of life during wartime. GIs at a dance, window signs displaying rationed goods, and a rally in Times Square were among his common themes. The artistic rendering of the everyday as news enabled Weegee to make memorable, meaningful photographs.Yet another transition during the war years was equally significant for Weegee. Beaumont Newhall, the photography curator for the Museum of Modern Art, was called to service in the Navy and his wife, Nancy Newhall, stepped up in his absence. She organized the first curated show of news photography, which toured the nation following its stand at MOMA. Four of Weegee's photographs were in the show, giving him a role in the expanded perspective of news photographs as works of art.

Credit: International Center for Photography (courtesy of Henry Holt and Company)

He was happy to plug cameras, flashbulbs, even the Gadg-It bag.

The publication of his book Naked City in 1945 finally made him Weegee the Famous. Magazines, with higher cultural capital and financial capital as well, came calling, and Weegee published photographs in Seventeen and Vogue, along with Look and Life. His professional path continued to take new turns, as he went from still images to experimenting with motion pictures and later using darkroom techniques to create distorted images of portraits he'd made. Although Weegee was notoriously self-promoting, he did not play a role in the rights to his book's title being sold for a feature film about life in New York City, 1948's The Naked City (Jules Dassin). After serving as a consultant for the film, which was shot on location, Weegee decided to try his luck as a filmmaker and moved to Los Angeles. This was not a successful endeavor.

The last two decades of Weegee's life took some unfavorable turns, yet Bonanos is never uncharitable in the telling. In writing about the style and stories that Weegee included in the memoir he began drafting late in life, Bonanos captures the essence of the character portrayed throughout Flash: "He is at once gentle and crude, at once sensitive and crass." As a reader, I always rooted for the gentle and sensitive over the crude and crass. Weegee's lesser qualities usually triumphed, leaving me wondering whether this throws a shadow over how we perceive the quality of his photographs. While the persona Arthur Fellig created overwhelmed his essential self, Weegee remains an important figure in the history of photography and an influence on generations to follow.

Photo: Matthew Mottel / Credit: International Center for Photography (courtesy of Henry Holt and Company)

In the last summer of Weegee's life, the photographer Syeus Mottel met him in Washington Square, then took him to dinner at Bernstein-on-Essex-Street, a kosher Chinese restaurant. Weegee reciprocated by taking him to a nudie movie that night.

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