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Flash: The Making of Weegee The Famous

An excerpt from Christopher Bonanos’ latest book

Let’s talk about that name first. Or, rather, those three names.

Usher Fellig was a greenhorn, a hungry shtetl child from eastern Europe who spoke no English. When he came through Ellis Island in 1909, at ten years old, he reinvented himself, as so many immigrants do. In his first years in New York, Usher became Arthur, a Lower East Side street kid who was eager to get out of what he called “the lousy tenements,” earn a living, impress girls, make a splash. He had turned his name (slightly) less Jewish, and his identity (somewhat) more American, as much as he could make it. As a young man, he was shy, awkward, broke, and unpolished, and at fourteen he became a seventh-grade dropout. He was also smart, ambitious, funny, and (as he and then his fellow New Yorkers and eventually the world discovered) enormously expressive when you put a camera in his hands.

As an adult, he reinvented himself a second time. “In 1925,” his friend Peter Martin later wrote, “Arthur Fellig disappeared through a hole in space, and nobody ever heard of him again.” In real life, it was a little more gradual than that, but in his place there began to appear a character called Weegee, a persona Arthur Fellig eventually slipped into as easily as he did his ill-maintained, loose-fitting suits. “Weegee the Famous,” he signed his name, introducing himself to strangers and talk show hosts as “the world’s greatest living photographer.” Weegee worked New York City by night and was a man who knew how to take hold of a tough town, snapping pictures of gangsters and movie stars, selling prints to newspapers and magazines and the Museum of Modern Art, consulting on Hollywood movies, jetting off to London or Paris on assignment. In the role of Weegee, Arthur Fellig was able to shed his awkwardness. He was brash, working the angles with cops, talking up his “genius” with interviewers. He could spin off polished wisecracky anecdotes rat-a-tat while delivering four-hour impromptu lectures on the craft of news photography to anyone who’d have him, lingering until the last member of the audience had grown tired of asking questions. He explicitly said, later on, that as a young man “I wanted to go out and make a lot of money, become famous, and meet people.”

Both Fellig and Weegee could make a raw first impression. Sixty-two years after meeting him, the actress and playwright Judith Malina remembered that at first “he seemed like a kind of person you didn’t want to know.” Yet somehow, she explained, soon enough he’d have you charmed. Malina certainly was; she eventually agreed to pose nude for him, and spoke of him warmly, calling him “my good friend Arthur.”

Most of us have an image in our heads of the big-city newspaper photographer at midcentury: the squat guy in a rumpled suit and crumpled fedora, carrying a big press camera with a flashgun mounted on its side, a stinky cigar clamped in the corner of his mouth. Central Casting deserves only a little of the credit. Weegee is the man who created that image, and it has outlived his mainstream fame. People who have never heard of Weegee can describe him. He not only took hold of his life and redefined it; the image he created of himself lingers, fifty years after his death, to the point where he has become an archetype as much as a person. “He rather likes to pass himself off as a character,” wrote John Lewis, an editor at the newspaper PM, where Weegee did some of his best work. “He is, but not exactly the same one.” The public-facing persona furthered his career, but it was the one within who framed the shots and pressed the shutter button.

The man himself was real, and as an individual maker of pictures he was both innately talented and profoundly skilled. But we will never quite know if he was merely first among equals. News photography during the early part of Weegee’s career was almost always anonymous. When credits did appear, most of the time they attached pictures not to people but to institutional entities: the Associated Press, International News Service, Acme Newspictures. Besides, in the 1930s, virtually no one thought this stuff was art. It was made on demand, for the next day’s edition, and if it wasn’t quite a disposable commodity, it was pretty close. “Spot news,” it was called, and even the work of a good photographer would be filed the next day in the paper’s morgue, kept on hand in case the subject reappeared in the news. Unless it depicted something of ageless, recurring interest (the burning Hindenburg, say, or Babe Ruth as he put a home run ball in the seats), a picture might not be reprinted for five years or fifty. Most often, it would never be seen again. A lot of news pictures eventually got thrown away.

Even when press photographers were celebrated, they weren’t invited to the party. In 1935, The American Mercury magazine joined with the book publisher Alfred A. Knopf to publish a big anthology of great news pictures titled The Breathless Moment. In its roughly two hundred pages, not one photographer is named, and the introduction doesn’t bother to apologize or explain. That’s just how it was. Arthur Fellig’s work was anonymous, too, until Weegee decided that it shouldn’t be.

He became Weegee the Famous because, beyond a doubt, his photography rose to a high level. His best pictures are intensely truthful. Some are painful, others unexpectedly warm, many others funny, touching, memorable. (And, as we shall see, sometimes he would give the truth some extra help.) But we also know Weegee because he was aggressive about letting people know who made those pictures. He was a constant, cheery self-promoter. This set him apart from his more diffident, now-forgotten colleagues. An afternoon spent browsing their work in the New York Daily News or the Los Angeles Examiner will yield a few photos that hold their own next to Weegee’s best. In the newspapers’ file drawers, some of the prints will have the photographers’ names scribbled on their backs. Others, poignantly, have surnames only (“Petersen” or “Levine” or “McCrory”), with first names forgotten by all but their grandchildren. Many other pictures carry no name at all. Were any of those men — there were virtually no women — consistent enough, reliable enough, aggressive enough to produce deadline art the way Arthur Fellig could? It takes nothing away from his achievements to say that some of them probably were. We’ll never know. Weegee the Famous has come to stand for them all.

And that word itself, Weegee? It may have been meant to obscure, yet its origins say a great deal about Arthur Fellig. To hear him tell it, he was a photographic clairvoyant, someone who got a mysterious tingle in his elbow when news was about to break and who made his way to the scene just in time. Eventually, someone — in all the retellings, the source varied, from Fellig himself to a friend to a secretary at the photo agency where he worked — said something like “It’s as if you have a Ouija board.” That fortune-telling gadget was a national craze of the 1920s, and the self-educated Arthur Fellig spelled it the way it sounded: oui-jee came out Weegee. Or, as he later wisecracked, “I changed it … to make it easier for the fan mail.” A variant of this tale refers to the line drawing of a moon face that appears in the corner of the Ouija board itself. Charles Liotta, a photoengraver who worked alongside Arthur Fellig at the start of his career, told people that he had seen an echo of Fellig’s doughy, expressive mug in that face and given him the nickname. Perhaps he did.

But there’s another story. In his twenties, before he was selling his own pictures, Fellig worked in the darkrooms of the New York Times. His particular role on that fast-moving assembly line was to dry off prints before they were pressed onto ferrotype plates for final finishing. Much as reporters would pull a page out of their typewriters and shout, “Copy!,” whereupon a copyboy would whisk the story off to be typeset, a darkroom printer would announce that a photo was ready to be dried by calling out, “Squeegee!” The young men who responded were called squeegee boys. (Fellig was not the only such apprentice who made good; Frank Cancellare, the photographer whose DEWEY DEFEATS TRUMAN picture everyone has seen, also started out as a squeegee boy.) When Fellig took another job, at the Acme Newspictures agency, he moved up to printing photos himself, and when his colleagues found out that he had until recently been a squeegee boy, they needled him about it. Over time, as he gained their respect and as his technical skills became evident, the mockery flipped into praise. “Squeegee boy” turned into “Mr. Squeegee” and eventually became Weegee. “Like practically everything he ever owned,” a friend of his once joked, “the name got worn down.”

So: either Arthur Fellig was a near-clairvoyant artisan turned artist with magical powers or he was a schlub in the darkroom, barked at and hazed by his colleagues. If the first story is the true one, he was very, very good at creating a public image. If the second version is true (as indeed it is), that achievement grows even more impressive: he was able to turn a vaguely humiliating nickname into what we now would call a personal brand, one that has endured for nearly a hundred years.

His was a compartmentalized soul. He was sensitive enough to catch extreme delicacy on film but also steely enough to do so when faced with a severed human head or the incinerated victim of a truck fire. He was an uneducated man whose writing displays vigorous, confident wit and flair; a person who was strikingly egalitarian on matters of race while reveling in his misogyny; a great American artist who didn’t quite have a grip on what an artist was. He is generally thought of as a photographer of crime and urban mayhem, yet the majority of his working life was spent on other subjects. He was, like most photographers, a voyeur. Maybe more than most.

Among the art establishment, he was respected but also the object of condescension. Too often they called him “a primitive,” implying that his skill came without practice or craft. They took pains to point out his relatively crude lighting, his unsubtle extra-high-contrast prints. Most observers thought — and some critics still do — that Weegee made great art only when he wasn’t really trying to, and that when he did try later in life the results were a sad joke. (They’re not.) But he, in turn, saw things that they didn’t. Next to the work of many of his ostensibly more artistic contemporaries, Weegee’s is more vivid, more powerful, sui generis. He very early on grasped that the distinction between high culture and low was growing blurry, and he enthusiastically jumped back and forth between those worlds. He realized that pictures of a workaday news event such as a fire are often less interesting than pictures of people reacting to that event, and many of his greatest photographs show the latter. In a lot of ways — his self-referentiality, his acknowledgment of the viewer, his cheerfully held attitude that a news photograph need not be 100 percent factual to be entirely truthful — he was postmodern before we had that word.

Many of us, in various fields of work, create professional façades for ourselves. A messy home life, with troubled kids or even just piled-up dishes in the sink, fades to invisibility if you show up at the office in a suit on Monday morning. A shy person, girded with the journalistic armor of a camera or reporter’s notebook, can abruptly become capable of pushing past a police line to ask tough questions. Celebrities reinvent themselves for public view, and we revel in their transformations. Who doesn’t enjoy those “Before They Were Famous” photos that gossip magazines occasionally run? We look at them to laugh at the awkward hair and cheesy fashion choices, but also to see whether people destined for extraordinary lives knew it all along. (Did they show their drive, or at least their cheekbones, from the beginning?) Today, one can construct fame out of virtually nothing. On social media, we build representations of our lives that resemble but do not truly reflect our days. “We tell ourselves stories in order to live,” Joan Didion so memorably wrote; we also tell everyone else our own stories, and eventually they can become our biographical plotlines, to be debunked, perhaps, only much later.

Arthur Fellig, as Weegee, was in the business of grabbing images that functioned as little one-act plays, both comedy and drama. They were the silver halide equivalent of that six-word novel spuriously attributed to Ernest Hemingway: “For sale: Baby shoes, never worn.” Fellig communicated in a visual language that both tabloid-reading subway commuters and arty museum curators grasped right away. You can’t say the best narrative he ever fashioned was his own — he made too many great photographs that tell vivid stories about other people — but Weegee himself was certainly the beat he sustained longest. In the archive of his work (preserved by his longtime companion Wilma Wilcox, and today held by the International Center of Photography) there are about nineteen thousand prints. Hundreds of them show Weegee himself, a mix of self-portraits and photographs by unnamed friends and colleagues. He was obsessed with his own public face.

Which makes sense: that image enabled the making of the other images. Weegee was the one who went on talk shows, raced to a burning tenement to beat the competition, got assignments that paid hundreds or even thousands of dollars; Arthur Fellig did not. Was that guy he created immodest? Self-aggrandizing? Pushy? Irritating, sometimes? You bet he was. This was New York, and he was in the newspaper business. Modesty was for suckers.

Here’s how he did it.

Excerpted from Flash: The Making of Weegee The Famous (Henry Holt). © 2018 by Christopher Bonanos.

Christopher Bonanos is the city editor of New York magazine, the author of Instant: The Story of Polaroid, and (along with his wife and their son) a permanent New Yorker.

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