Looking Through the Lens of Weegee: An Interview with Christopher Bonanos
The NBCC biography award winner on Flash: The Making of Weegee the Famous
In March, The New School hosted this year’s National Book Critics Circle awards, which honor literature published in the United States in the previous year. The awards are presented in six categories — autobiography, biography, criticism, fiction, nonfiction, and poetry — and are the only U.S. literary awards chosen by critics themselves.
Liz Sheldon, on behalf of Creative Writing at The New School and the NBCC, interviewed Christopher Bonanos about his book Flash: The Making of Weegee the Famous, winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award for Biography.
As the city editor of New York magazine, Christopher Bonanos is no stranger to the hustle it takes to make it in the NYC media world. But that inside perspective is just part of what Flash: The Making of Weegee the Famous, his new NBCC-nominated biography of mid-century crime and pop photographer Weegee, so much fun to read. In exploring how tenement kid Arthur Fellig became self-taught photographer, early branding expert, and true New York character Weegee, Bonanos (whose first book was Instant: The Story of Polaroid) also takes us on a romp through the history of the tabloid industry, the rise and fall of the New York mob, and even the golden age of Hollywood. Bonanos took a few minutes to chat about Weegee’s wild legacy and the process of distilling it into Flash.
LS: First things first: Why Weegee?
CB: I would say two things: one, I usually write about New York City history, and the history of the press, and two, because my previous book about photography. And they all cross paths with him.
LS: In fact, so much seems to cross paths with him — the history of New York, the origins of tabloid journalism, the evolution of street photography as an art form…
CB: It’s so true, he keeps popping up in other people’s stories, which makes him an interesting person to trace through the culture. And you can follow him through his work, as well as through his life, because his pictures are a great history of New York in his time.
LS: The book includes hour-by-hour replays of some of his nights hitting the streets and hustling timelines together?
CB: The International Center of Photography has his estate, so some of it was from their archive. They have a lot of manuscript pages from magazine articles, and a few drafts of the autobiography he wrote, so I could go through the cut material for details. But mostly I put together the blow-by-blow by going through all the newspapers from those years. His career in the thirties is not very well-documented. Later on he becomes easier to trace because he started to get famous, especially once he started working for P.M., the now-defunct paper that turned him into a character. He authored columns for them, and they also wrote more about him. But before that, he wasn’t really in the habit of saving much of his work, so a lot of what he shot went into the anonymous stream of news photographs. But about every other week a paper would run an image from him with a credit, so I tracked his nights via those. What’s challenging about that though is that most of the papers from that time still haven’t been digitized. There were nine dailies in New York at the time, and the only way to find all the photo credits is to turn every damn page on microfilm. So I would sit there in the New York Public Library every Saturday and Sunday — I can tell you from experience they’re also open late two nights a week — and I would just turn pages. I went through five years of the New York Post, and five years of theNew York World-Telegram, and five years of The New York Sun. There were patchy databases of the Post and the Sun online, and two of the bigger papers, The New York Times and the New York Herald Tribune are digitally searchable. It was a big job — but those three papers, and The New York Evening Journal, were the ones that credited him the most in the early days, so I focused my efforts there.
LS: A running theme in the book is the question of how much posing and fudging Weegee did to get the shot — and also the extent to which his work is considered capital A art, and you’re pretty egalitarian about it. How did you decide how much of your feelings about those topics to insert?
CB: The academic art historians have their own strong opinions on this. I like the academics who have written about Weegee a lot, but they look at it as purely artistic practice. I come at it differently because I am also a member of the press, and I see how newspaper and magazines photographers work. It fascinates me how we see these pictures so differently. I’m thinking about the way our New York photographers have shot and what it’s like in a press scrum, and art historians are just thinking about the end result. Mind you, I’m not suggesting that my perspective is better or more accurate, it’s just different.
In terms of actual value judgement, I think he was well in line with the values of his time. The business of occasionally setting up a picture — I think a lot of news photographers did that at the time. There are so many stories in memoirs of the time of a photographer giving a kid 10 bucks to go stand in the right place. You can get on your high horse about it as a journalism critic, or you can say, ‘that’s how the job was done then’. That’s just a fact. And the pictures sometimes do tell the truth even when they’ve gotten a little help.
LS: Can you talk a bit more about how being an editor affected how you tackled this story?
CB: As a member of the press, there are times that I can recognize what he’s going for in a photograph that an art critic might not — and vice versa! He was also working during the Great Depression, when the tabloid and newspaper business was going great guns, but it was not as rich as it had been a few years earlier. There were mergers going on that diminished the number of outlets at some points, and it was a place where freelancers were scraping by. All of which might feel kind of familiar if you’re paying attention to the industry.
LS: Part of how Weegee became a household name was by inserting himself into his news photographs. Was he the only photographer to take things that far?
CB: I’m not sure, and I’ll tell you why. Because you do see people pointing in pictures, but you don’t know who they are. Is that some random passer-by that the photographer grabbed, or is it himself? I would guess that what Weegee did was a little more unusual. He was such a lone wolf and he wanted his face in the paper. I bet he felt like he was putting one over the photo editors now and then. And it did work for him. As I said at one point in the book, he created a personal brand before we had that word, and it has lasted a hundred years. He was built for the age of Instagram. He was self-promoting, and what is Instagram if not a tool for self-promotion? I always say if he were alive today he would be pitching a reality T.V. show about his life called I Shoot by Night. I’d watch it!
LS: Do you have favorite of the anecdotes about his wild adventures?
CB: What I love especially are the news stories behind the photographs. Like, for example the image of William Hessler, who turned up in a trunk in Brooklyn. I love the detail that he was found with 48 ice pick wounds in his chest and a nickel in his pocket, and the nickel was left there by mobsters in order to give the victim car fare home. I mean, c’mon!
In terms of his life story, the joyful hustle of it all is incredibly pleasurable. I also love that story about the photo that really got him into the game in 1936, when he went racing out to photograph the couple of murderer teenagers in Bayonne New Jersey at four in the morning. It’s an amazing story of getting there in the two-hour window after the morning papers came out without any pictures, and before the deadline for the afternoon papers.
LS: He’s such an interesting lens through which to view the NYC media landscape. Was he just in the right place at the right time?
CB: I think that’s sort of half true. In the beginning he was just a working stiff press photographer. He had some talent, but he was nothing special. Over the first few years of shooting, partly because he worked all the time and partly because he turned out to have an eye, he learned how to do it as well as anyone, and then to elevate it past the level of workaday, take the picture for the paper and up to something more meaningful. But he really embraced the job you could get at the time. He was very practical that way. He also got started very late. He didn’t quit his job to go freelance until he was 36, and he didn’t get famous until he was in his forties. Nobody does that! It’s really wild.
LS: How did you hit on the irreverent, kind of fast-paced tone of the book? It’s such a great match for the story you’re telling.
CB: That’s something I thought about a great deal. My own voice as a writer is shaped by magazine work, so I was part way there. I write for a popular audience. But I did make a conscious choice that I wanted to avoid any sort of formality in the language. I wanted it to be a restrained version of a tabloid voice. Now I am not a tabloid writer, they write short sentences and I write long sentences, but I wanted a little of that snap and verve to get in there somehow, and I was never sure if I’d got it. So it’s great to hear if people are seeing that in there.
The definitive quality of Weegee’s photos is this sort of playful ghoulishness, and kind of reveling in the picture of the dead guy bleeding on the sidewalk, about which Weegee said ‘I really wanted to make it look like he was taking a little nap.’ So I tried to summon up that voice. Weegee’s particular New York-accented idioms are also very familiar to me. It’s pretty much the way my grandparents and their friends spoke, and his voice, which I have come to know on recordings pretty well, is one that I recognize from real life. And maybe that got in my head a little bit too. There’s a video called Weegee Tells How, it’s a recording he made in 1958 explaining how he made some of his more favorite photographs. You can hear his accent, and it’s pretty unbelievable.
LS: Weegee was so prolific — how did you pick which photos to include in the book?
CB: I had a long list! I had a budget, so that determined the number. There’s about 60, and it was definitely painful chucking out a few at the last minute. Sometimes I wanted to illustrate a particular anecdote or make a point about his photographic technique. Other times it was too good a photo to leave out. For example The Critic has to appear, it’s so famous. Then in three or four few cases, they were pictures I just loved too much not to include. There’s one photograph of Robert Joyce, the guy who drank 18 beers and shot two guys in an argument about the Brooklyn Dodgers. It’s an amazing face, and I just knew I had to have it.
LS: I couldn’t decide at the end if this is a triumphant story, or a sad one. What do you think?
CB: I don’t know either. It ended badly for him in that he was broke. But he wasn’t alone, he had Wilma, his on-again, off-again partner. She was the silent hero who safeguarded his archive. He ended sort of forgotten and not really happy with the way things had turned out for him — but at the same time, there is a sort of triumph, in that he wanted to be famous, he wanted to not be forgotten. It’s 2019, he’s in a 400-page book and here we are talking about his story.
Christopher Bonanos is city editor at New York magazine, where he covers arts and culture and urban affairs. He is the author of Instant: The Story of Polaroid. He lives in New York City with his wife and their son.
Liz Sheldon is the Editorial Director at Of a Kind and a current MFA candidate in fiction at The New School. This interview was first published on the Creative Writing at The New School blog.