If Raymond Chandler’s streets were mean, Weegee’s were meaner and they were real. “To me a photograph is a page from life,” he said, “and that being the case, it must be real.” And they were, sometimes too real, showing the underside of the city, the dark side of the American Dream with a hot jazz soundtrack playing hard in the background.
Most of us in the crime writing community are familiar with Weegee, Arthur Felig. He was an immigrant to the US, who became known for his stark and dark photos of crimes scenes in the 1930s and 40s. That’s not all he photographed, but that’s what he’s mostly remembered for.
Starting off as a darkroom tech, by 1935 he was a freelance photographer. He didn’t wait for stories to come to him, he went out and found them. Of his start, he said “In my particular case I didn't wait 'til somebody gave me a job or something, I went and created a job for myself—freelance photographer. And what I did, anybody else can do. What I did simply was this: I went down to Manhattan Police Headquarters and for two years I worked without a police card or any kind of credentials. When a story came over a police teletype, I would go to it. The idea was I sold the pictures to the newspapers. And naturally, I picked a story that meant something.”
Weegee often beat the cops to the scene of the crime. He worked out of his office, uh, his trunk. He estimated that he shot 5,000 pictures of murders in the 1930s and ’40s. In our narcissistic age, we tend to think that crime and viciousness is unique to our era as we watch the local news and see the ‘if it bleeds it leads’ stories stacked up, one on top of the other. And we ask, what’s wrong with society today? But maybe it’s not society, but people. After all, ancient Rome had gladiator fights and it’s speculated that the Mayans and Aztecs played a ball game using human heads as the ball. So there’s really nothing new under the sun. That said, I wonder what his dreams were like.
Weegee and Film Noir:
The photos that Weegee is best known for are stark, high-contrast black and white pictures taken with a bright flash, often of the seedier side of life. Everything from murder and other crime scenes, to gangsters, nightclubs, hookers.
There is often a sense of menace, sometimes overt, sometimes more subtle. And the angle of the shots adds to the unsettling effect. And he didn’t only point his camera at the subject at hand, but turned it around for the reverse angle of those watching from the sidelines, or composed shots to see those watchers in the background of some grisly scene.
His images often look like stills from the sets of film noir movies.
Eventually Weegee and film noir came together. Producer Mark Hellinger, inspired by Weegee’s book Naked City, bought the rights and recreated Weegee’s style in the film The Naked City. Weegee also worked as a consultant on the film and had a small part in it. His work also influenced Stanley Kubrick and The Man with a Camera TV series. And Joe Pesci’s character of Bernzy in The Public Eye is a direct rip off of Weegee, as the producers couldn’t obtain the rights to his story.
Weegee was the inspiration for Bob Winger, the main character in my short story Poison Heart, found in the 2010 Deadly Ink collection. Winger’s a burned out, pissed off, fed up crime photog, who winds up staging crime scene photos, inspired by Weegee, and passes them off as the real thing...until things totally spin out of control. (Deadly Ink 2010 Anthology)
“When you find yourself beginning to feel a bond between yourself and the people you photograph, when you laugh and cry with their laughter and tears, you will know you are on the right track.”
***Note: As far as I can tell, all of the pictures/photos in this article are “free to share and use” according to Bing’s license search feature.
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