By Elizabeth Greenwood
“Weegee the Famous,” he anointed himself. Born Arthur Fellig in 1899, the self-christened “Weegee” became notorious for photographing gangland murders, car crashes, tenement fires, and anything else salacious and schadenfreude-inducing. He lived on Centre Street opposite NYPD headquarters, and slept most of the day away, rising at night to pack flash bulbs and chemicals into the trunk of the ’38 Chevy that doubled as his darkroom and prowl the streets looking for bloodstained sidewalks to photograph, embellishing the images in the printmaking process with red nail polish. Weegee’s crime scene photos are always high-contrast because he relied on flash bulbs (then a new technology), and look not too different from a typical police crime blotter.
In the photographs on display at the International Center for Photography (through September 29th), it becomes a bit difficult to distinguish Weegee from a common paparazzo, except that his celebrity shots are of cold corpses and not cold starlets. In a way, Weegee was a paparazzo: he shot for the progressive tabloid PM, covering the baroque violence that spilled out from bars and halls into the streets. The elevation of these salacious prints to museum walls made me wonder if any black and white (archival) newspaper photo becomes art when framed with Museum Glass. (I wonder how the pages of Us Weeklywill hold up 80 years from now.)
But Weegee didn’t just shoot crime victims, he eventually turned his camera on the crowds of rubberneckers. He turns the focus onto the people who, drawn by the police siren’s song, raced down god knows how many flights of airless stairs in their bedclothes to sneak a peek at the carnage. In “The Joy of Living” (1942), police obscure a lifeless corpse with newspapers, hiding it from the semi-circle of gawkers crowding in. One man at the periphery looks straight into the camera and grins. Is it because he is thrilled by his good fortune to brush up against something exciting? Is it to say “Look Ma!” in the evening paper? Is the grin for Weegee, celebrity photographer, friend of gangsters (a rumor he started himself) who has shown up on the scene tonight? “At an East Side Murder” (1943) shows ragamuffin kids grinning and pointing—ostensibly to the police and the victim who are outside of the shot. One boy, in a too-small t-shirt, cranes his neck for a view, half thrilled, half leery. In “Drowning Victim,” a doctor administers first aid to an unconscious boy through a medieval looking tube, while a dozen happy revelers crowd around. Just behind the boy, a young woman strikes a pin-up pose, making love to Weegee’s camera as if she were posing against velvet in a private studio. Weegee contradicts the death and decay in the foreground with the sunny vivacity or hysterical glee of those in the background.
You could hop a downtown train and try to conjure the roasted peanut smells from the 2nd Avenue El tracks, but the ICP does it for you.
But while newspaper audiences may have focused entirely on the central figures in Weegee’s prints, today viewers might be more entranced by the old New York in the back ground. The passage of time makes Weegee’s New York seem somehow more “authentic” than my own. His photographs seem to capture a vanished city that I long for despite its violence and grift. One of Weegee’s most famous photographs is “Crowd at Coney Island, Temperature 89 Degrees… They Came Early and Stayed Late” (1940). It might as well have been the hottest day of the year, because you can’t see a speck of sand on the beach. All the bodies—pear-shaped, skinny, brown and olive and pasty, in skirted swim suits and floppy sun hats and short shorts—converge to become a sea themselves. Weegee, who must have suspended himself on a plank above the boardwalk to get the shot, must have commanded them to say cheese because everyone smiles and waves to the camera. It is summer and freedom and sex and family fun are all grinding up on each other.
I had seen this photo before I moved to New York, and loved it. In the black and white still, everyone looks like a freeze-frame of nostalgia and good feelings and unadulterated American fun. It looks very far away. But the ICP is also showing a short 16 mm film Weegee shot that day called Weegee’s New York. He captures the day from sun up, the groups filling in the beach with towels and blankets, ice cream dribbling down chins, and people playing accordions and castanets forming impromptu dance parties. And then sometime in the late afternoon, Weegee filmed the gathering of his famous photo. But it gives a very different feeling from the still. It is in gloppy primitive color; the reds and yellows bleed to produce a frantic filter over the sun-scorched afternoon. The crowd undulates, and if you didn’t know it was a crowd it might take you a few seconds to place what that swaying, heaving thing is—an amoeba, zoomed in a million times on a microscope? The legs of a centipede? No, it’s thousands of sweat-slick bodies pressed together, stampeding one another, trying to get front and center for their moment in Weegee’s sun.
What do Weegee’s avenues and alleyways look like today? You could hop a downtown train and try to conjure the roasted peanut smells from the 2nd Avenue El tracks, but the ICP does it for you. On an interactive touchscreen TV, you can scroll through a Weegee photo alongside the same location today. Weegee’s photos on the left-hand side of the screen look dark and shadowy along the edges and then bleached out and overexposed in the middle of what he was photographing. His subjects are an explosion of light coming out of the darkness, but everything is still grainy and supple, you can smell the stench of the city and the people. Their modern-day doppelgangers on the right-hand side are more balanced, the buildings’ edges are sharper, the people’s faces are drawn taut as they studiously ignore the camera. That city looks steely. Today’s New York looks as if it might slide away.
Weegee’s New York is a cigarette butt ground out on a gum-splattered sidewalk with the heel of a scuffed shoe.
Weegee’s New York may feel unavailable to us now, but New York is always unavailable in a way. People come here with dreams, and brush up against people everyday who have already achieved that dream. What I want is always right there, within arm’s reach, or that’s how it seems. Now that I’ve lived here for six years, I find myself describing locations by what used to be there. I’ll suggest that we go to a bar by the old Kampuchea, that we go to the new club that used to be Goodworld. I think I do it to pin down the past, which slides away with every shiny new window or consciously burnished copper barstool that tries to evoke what the old New York must have been. What used to be there is how we mark our history. I think about Weegee’s people, how frenzied their faces are in the flash-bulb glare.
Weegee’s New York is a cigarette butt ground out on a gum-splattered sidewalk with the heel of a scuffed shoe. It’s electric lights and neon signs, high heels’ clacks sounding like somewhere to be or to flee, fire truck sirens and onion dinner smells from the neighbor down the hall you’ve never seen. It’s the heat that still rises from the asphalt after midnight and radiates up your bare legs, it’s the water towers’ stretched stilt shadow over limestone blushing pink. It’s the looks on faces erupting from frozen dead-eyed determination into frenzy when something, we don’t know what, but something, is happening. Weegee’s New York is why I, and many like myself, moved here, to find the metropolis, the teeming crowd, the magic in the murder, because the sidewalks do glitter here, even though what looks like diamond dust is actually dirt.
When I walked out of the exhibit and onto 6th Avenue at dusk, with deliverymen on bikes riding against traffic and people coming out of offices on their way to evening plans, I caught myself looking hard at people I walked by on the street, studying the lines and ridges of their faces for the split second we were close enough to make eye contact.
Elizabeth Greenwood is a freelance writer specializing in film and culture. She can be found on Twitter at @lizgreenwood4U