Weegee: Portrait of the Artist as a Paparazzo (2006)

He was so respected by the NYPD that they let him fit a police radio in his car, but even with that edge, his uncanny ability to show up at a crime scene before the police even knew about the crime gave him his nickname. Weegee was so fast that he must be getting tip-offs from the dead, from a Ouija board, in fact.

 

By Michael Symmons Roberts, originally published in The Tablet, July 2006

In a culture that elevates new nanocelebrities to the pantheon on a weekly basis, paparazzi photographers are a moral problem for all of us. Publicly despised at all levels of society from Parliament to pub, they produce work that is nonetheless addictive, providing a connection with the lives of the stars.

In the course of researching my recent novel, Patrick’s Alphabet, I found myself drawn to a particular sub-group of the hated paparazzi: the ambulance chasers. This macabre line of work cashes in less on our obsession with celebrities and more on the impulse that makes us slow down to gawp at a wrecked car. The novel is seen through the eyes of a man who makes his living photographing crash and crime scenes, selling his shots to newspapers or websites. But my fictional protagonist has a real-life hero, and the more I researched, the more he became a hero of mine too.

I’d heard the name Weegee, but I didn’t know his pictures. Once I started looking at them, I was hooked. Weegee was Arthur Fellig. He was a New Yorker, son of Jewish immigrants, who plied his trade on the New York streets in the 1930s and 1940s.

He was so respected by the NYPD that they let him fit a police radio in his car, but even with that edge, his uncanny ability to show up at a crime scene before the police even knew about the crime gave him his nickname. Weegee was so fast that he must be getting tip-offs from the dead, from a Ouija board, in fact.

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Much of his best work was done at night, with his blinding close-up flat-pan flash. Sometimes, he couldn’t see what his subjects were up to, but he’d run in to his pre-focused at 10 feet, then hit the button. It was said that he kept the police channel on all night by his bed. He would sleep through 15 unpromising call- outs, then be up and out in seconds for the one that showed real potential. The story was that he had trained his unconscious mind to pick up on certain key words.

Part of what fascinates me about Weegee, and about anyone in his line of work, is the mechanism of distance. What logical loops and personal mythologies are built up to justify the work, and to defend the photographer against the brutality of his subject matter? There are clues about this in Weegee’s case.

Any new recruits to the New York picture desks had to learn Weegee slang. For him, a corpse was not a corpse. It was a “dry-diver” if it jumped from a roof or a window. If it was dredged up from the harbour, or washed on to the stones along the shore it was a “bottom-feeder”. “Roasts” were fire victims.

It was one of Weegee’s truths that if you have your camera poised and wait, you will see people reveal themselves. He called it “the breathless moment”, that split second when the mask drops, and you see into a person’s heart. The combination of timing, fantastic technique, years of work and the essential slice of luck have left us with a collection of images as arresting as any in the history of photography.

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 Weegee’s subject matter was – for the most part – human misery and disaster. In a piece of advice to would-be ambulance chasers, he said, “Don’t forget, above anything and everything else … be human … think … feel. When you find yourself beginning to feel a bond between yourself and people you photograph, when you laugh and cry with their laughter and tears, you will know you are on the right track.”

 

In the most famous book of his images – Naked City – there are two night shots of a New York car smash where a bread van met a car on a dimly lit street. By Weegee’s standards, he’s a little late, there is a bunch of people milling round, and the police are taking statements.He takes the head-on shot first, of the bread van. Center frame is a man’s body, arms and legs akimbo. Two cops are standing by his head, talking and pointing. Right of frame is a van with the words “rye bread” and “pumpernickel rolls and cakes” on it. Top of frame is a bunch of voyeurs, out from the bars and clubs to see what’s going on. Foot of frame is a scattering of bread – long loaves, round loaves, rolls, crackers. It’s a well-framed shot, a shot for a newspaper. But then he goes looking for the other car. There’s no light here, so he takes a chance, moves into his 10-foot range and shoots. When he gets into the darkroom, what has he got? He’s got a woman – white as a ghost in the dazzling flash – parked up and staring through the windscreen. She’s on her way to, or from, a party by the looks of things – loose flowery dress and a big paper bloom pinned to the side of her hair. Her mouth is open, as if it were full of ashes. A policeman has just found her, and is clutching her hand through the open window. A couple of minutes ago, she was humming the dance tunes. Now a man is dead.

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Weegee’s subject matter was – for the most part – human misery and disaster. In a piece of advice to would-be ambulance chasers, he said, “Don’t forget, above anything and everything else … be human … think … feel. When you find yourself beginning to feel a bond between yourself and people you photograph, when you laugh and cry with their laughter and tears, you will know you are on the right track.”

Weegee later got tempted away from his Speed Graphic camera by offers from Hollywood. But it didn’t work out. As a movie director, the one thing he lost was the most important of all, the split-second human connection between two people in a dark New York street, the breathless moment.

 

 

ASX CHANNEL: WEEGEE

(All rights reserved. Text @ Michael Symmons Roberts, Images @ ICP, Weegee Foundation)

 

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