Life & Culture

Weegee: The photographer who captured New York’s beating heart

A new book reveals the extraordinary photos taken by the man known as New York’s magician news photographer


A murdered gangster lies bleeding on the sidewalk. A car smashes off a bridge and sinks in New York harbour. A church rages in flames. A crowd cheers insanely. Just another night’s work for Weegee, New York’s magician news photographer from the late 1920s through the ’40s.

With an uncanny sense of where to be when something — usually a disaster — happened, Weegee captured a lively city in its delirium of joys and troughs of despair. He claimed the night as his own, and contrary to expectations, focused not only on the tragedy, but on people’s reaction to it. This charged his pictures with emotion and made them crackle with immediacy. Even now, looking back at his haunting world of black-and-white, you too feel instantly part of the crowd and share its giddy feelings. Sometimes it’s horror, looking at the mangled, bleeding body of a mobster; or relief, from a blistering summer night by a midnight spray from a fire hydrant. Or it’s the party of the century: the Allied victory over the Germans and Japanese in 1945.

Looking through the book, Extra! Weegee!* a collection of 359 pictures recently discovered in a storage facility -- transports you into another time when New York was crowded, dangerous, and exuberant. You feel like you’re there even though it looks so different from now with its antique cars, signs (“Park for the day: 25 cents!”) and wonderful clothes — men in suits, ties and hats, women in elegant coats, stockings and lipstick. And some situations just are beyond our modern experience, like office workers unable to get to their desks because of an elevator operator strike. These pictures are not just pre-internet, they’re from a time before TV. If there is a car crash or a murder on the street now, you can watch it on the news. But then, you’d go outside with your neighbours to stare.

And, when they came out, Weegee would be waiting. Unlike the wooden studio photographs popular at the time, he took his chances on the street. He had to be quick. It wasn’t easy. For many years, he used a Graflex Speed Graphic, a camera the size of a shoe box, with large, “4x5” negatives, which had to be changed with every shot. It was fast compared to other cameras of the time but you still had only one chance to shoot and get it right. The good thing was that the large negs translated into detailed silver bromide prints that, to this day, have far superior quality over smaller modern cameras, either film or digital. The other good thing about the Speed Graphic was that it synched to a flash, so his night-time shots were sharp. Helpful when you might only have one chance to take a crime scene with a “stiff” before being chased away by grumpy, sleepy cops. He took so many of those that his first exhibition was called, Murder is My Business. His car boot was his mobile studio, loaded with extra cameras, film, cigars, a typewriter and a stool to sit on when writing his captions.

Each picture’s caption, written by Weegee, is wonderfully presented in the book exactly as they had been originally pasted on the back of each print. The captions were a concise news story. For instance, a photo of a man carrying a large sack of potatoes a valuable item during Second World War rationing through a barber shop:

“NEW YORK CITY: Potatoes don’t grow in barber shops. That’s why barber Charles Falcone had a lot of explaining to do when police discovered 18,100 pounds of the precious spuds in the back of his shop at 1221 Sixth Ave. As this load of potatoes was wheeled out of the shop, Falcone was busy telling the authorities just how the potatoes got there… Seems he was holding them for a friend.”

Or: “NEW YORK CITY: SAVED AS WIFE AND KIN DIE IN AUTO PLUNGE INTO BAY. Harry Gardner, 50, locomotive engineer of Wilmington, NC, rests in cabin of tugboat after escape from automobile in which his wife, Lottie, 43, and her brother, Robert Turner, 42, died when it skidded across bulkhead at the Battery into the deep waters of New York Bay.”

Or: “. NEW YORK CITY: ONE SLAIN DURING STREET FETE IN NEW YORK’S ‘LITTLE ITALY’ The body of a man, identified by the police as Joseph (Little Joe) La Cava, 28, operator of a Bowery Café, lying in a pool of blood on Mulberry Street, following fatal shooting during a street fete, Sept 21. The shooting followed a free-for-all on the street, gaily decorated for the Feast of St Gennaro. A companion was critically slashed by jagged bottles. Detectives said both men attacked were under indictment in the Brooklyn restaurant protection racket.”

Weegee was born in Austria in 1899 as Usher Fellig, brought to America by his father, and raised on New York’s Lower East Side. Always fascinated by photography, he got work as a dark-room technician and in 1921 started work as a “squeegee boy” for the New York Times and later for Acme Picture Agency. (Some say his nickname derived from this, others claim it’s from the mystical Ouija board because of his sixth sense of where to be). He noticed that the newspaper photographers only worked during the day, so decided to claim the night as his territory. He went freelance in 1935 and got himself a police radio so he could be at crime scenes first. The huge national weekly Life magazine launched him to fame with a profile in 1937. Weegee was well ahead of them, already stamping the back of each print “Credit photo: By Weegee, the famous”.

While Weegee had a nose for shock and awe, he also had a marvellous artistic eye. Some of his pictures are as exquisitely composed as an old-master painting. Plus, he didn’t just react to news. He thought carefully about how events would happen, and made sure he was standing in the right spot when they did. He even conspired to set up pictures. For instance, he apparently got his assistant to hire a ragged lady from skid row to go uptown and gawp at some diamond-draped socialites in their furs and diamonds, thus getting the rich/poor contrast photo he was looking for. And not all of his pictures were of tragedy. He noticed a policeman shielding a young girl from the rain while covering a parade and that became the story. His subjects are pointedly not celebrities, in fact they are mostly just plain-looking folks with un-Hollywood-like teeth and lived-in clothes. But the less glossy they are, the more alive they seem.

The book shows photos mostly taken in the 1940s. There are hundreds more in other books. It is extraordinary that one man could have shot so many images of a messy, thrilling town.

From the posh uptown to the desperate Bowery, no one ever had their finger on the pulse of a city the Weegee did. His steady eye and flashing camera missed nothing. These pictures supposed to be thrown away the next day have now become a timeless portrait of the guts and glory of early 20th century New York.


*EXTRA! WEEGEE! Edited by Daniel Blau, US$50

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