Weegee: The Photography of Night Noir

Wegee’s World Under the Cover of Darkness: Life, Death and the Human Drama

Weegee’s (Arthur Fellig) peak period as a freelance crime and street photographer was like a whirlwind of perpetual motion, running from the mid-1930s into the postwar years. John Strausbaugh has described Weegee as a man who after discovering photography became a man with a mission, an obsession, an addiction. Weegee prowled the streets of New York City incessantly, non-stop during the graveyard shift, taking thousands of photographs that defined Manhattan as a film noir nightscape populated with hoodlums and gangsters, Bowery bums and slumming swells, tenement dwellers and victims of domestic brawls, fires and car crashes.

He chronicled Harlem, the Lower East Side, Coney Island and the police blotter. He liked nights because he had the photographic turf to himself but also because the best bad things happen at night, under the cover of darkness. Vandals make their mark, hit men practice their trade and people get crazy.

Like a dependable trooper, he was always prepared. He prowled the streets in a car that was outfitted with a police radio, a typewriter, developing equipment, a supply of cigars and a change of underwear. He was a one-man photo factory: he drove to a crime site; took pictures; developed the film, using the trunk as a darkroom; and delivered the prints.

Weegee captured the night in New York at a time when it was lonely and desolate and scary. He wanted to show that in New York City millions of people lived together in a state of total loneliness. Weegee photographed the city’s achievers, its homeless, its hard times, its festivities, its freaks, its victims, its politicians, its celebrities, its ethnic areas, its playgrounds and dumps, its posh avenues and mean streets.

He gave it an enduring nickname, The Naked City.

Weegee: The Photography of Night Noir

However, along with the lurid disasters of crime, fire and car crashes for which he was widely known, Weegee was also strong on documenting human interest subjects, especially related to the city’s social problems and its helpless sufferers. From the years of the Depression through World War II, New York was a rude, crude town. There was little heat in the winter and way too much in the summer. Immigrants poured into the city and there was barely enough room to hold them. Native-born workers felt the competition for jobs and space and resented the newcomers. The melting pot was in a constant boil. Weegee contributed sympathetic portraits of people who were existing at the outer margins of society, including the city’s homeless, impoverished immigrants on the Lower East Side, ethnic minorities suffering racial discrimination, and transsexuals and prostitutes. His images shed considerable light upon many of the concerns of urban American society that were festering just below the surface.

Weegee often strolled from his tiny second-floor single room, which was located on a narrow and drab block of tenement buildings, over to the Bowery for both work and relaxation, usually at Sammy’s Bowery Follies. From 1934 to 1970, Sammy’s attracted what The New York Times once described as a mixed crowd of “drunks and swells, drifters and celebrities, the rich and the forgotten.” Weegee was closely attuned to the erotic excitement of the low life, so at Sammy’s, where entertainers past their prime sang for customers past theirs, he memorialized with his photographs the performers’ expanded waists, multiplying chins and rolled stockings with money tucked inside.

Weegee, who disparaged The New York Times as a newspaper for the “well-off Manhattan establishment,” called Sammy’s “the poor man’s Stork Club” and wrote in the PM newspaper in 1944: “There’s no cigarette girl, a vending machine puts out cigarettes for a penny apiece. There’s no hatcheck girl, patrons prefer to dance with their hats and coats on. But there is a lulu of a floor show.” He was quite drawn to glamour and the allure of exotic beauty, but he despised socialites and their social register concerns and matters. He loved to use his photography to embarrass the rich, making them look like freaks.

In 1945, Weegee published Naked City and soon thereafter moved to Hollywood, where he served as a consultant on the film made from his book and even played some minor film roles. In 1946, after the huge success of his book, he announced that he was through with news photography and was no longer interested in the seamy side of New York. However, his career in Hollywood as an actor and consultant essentially went nowhere, and he never really fit into what he called “The Land of the Zombies.” He returned to Manhattan in 1951 and until his death in 1968 eked out a meager living by hawking his books and films, taking girlie pictures, consulting on special effects for filmmakers (mainly in Europe) and selling reprints of those remarkable news pictures that he no longer took.

Weegee: Watchman of the Night

Slide Show: Weegee/The Photography of Night Noir

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