Arthur (né Usher) Fellig was not the world’s greatest photojournalist. Neither was he a technical expert. By today’s documentary standards, he was something of a high-end hack, a newshound voyeur who trafficked in sensationalism and human misery to titillate tabloid readers’ blue-collar appetites for gossip and gore. And he was a huckster — a shameless self-promoter who separated himself from the pack of Depression-era press photographers and became famous, in part, simply by declaring himself famous. His late-in-life attempts at serious photography outside his noirish street-beat element were unexceptional, to put it kindly. Yet 34 years after his death and six decades after he did his best work, Fellig enjoys the affection of critics and the adoration of photojournalists, both of whom see him as a brilliant primitive wrapped in a gimmick — a genius in the rough whose only fault may have been producing art without artistic intention.
Fellig called himself Weegee, a nickname of muddied origins around which he cultivated an association with ouija boards, bragging, in his caricature New York accent, that he had a " psiay-kick caam-rah " that guided him to photograph a building just before it blew up or take a picture of a man before he was hit by a car. He sucked on cheap cigars, lived in a one-room combination darkroom/apartment off Times Square, freelanced the mean midnight streets of New York from the trunk of a police-radio-equipped ’38 Chevy, and sold himself as hard as he peddled his pictures.
No question, Weegee is an enjoyable character, and " Weegee’s World: Life, Death, and the Human Drama, " the current exhibit of more than 100 of his photographs at the Worcester Art Museum, is, despite its heavy-handed title, a total joy and worth the trip. The prints (most made by Weegee himself) come from a larger collection touring out of New York’s International Center of Photography (www.icp.org/weegee/). WAM, either mindful of its family image or fearful of the local bluenoses, edited out some of Weegee’s " gorier " news photos, a decision that’s as pointless as it is unfortunate, since what’s left will offend everybody who would have been offended anyway.
The exhibit showcases Weegee’s life’s work and his only-half-kidding street-tough persona in a way that brings two elemental questions front and center: should we take him seriously, and how serious is his work?
On the first count, there’s no easy answer. Weegee was the Buffalo Bill of photography. The line between his genuine personality and abilities and those of the low-rent character he invented to get attention is loosely drawn. To hear him tell it, Weegee didn’t have much respect for the nuances of photography. He worked mostly with a Speed Graphic view camera, a hand-held warhorse that used large-format sheet film. He claims he never focused — just set the bellows at 10 feet, closed down the lens, and relied on depth of field and the press camera’s oversized flash to guarantee a clean (if contrasty) shot.
To hear Weegee tell it, he didn’t have much respect for his subjects, either, describing them in Damon Runyon diction with a Jimmy Cagney attitude: da stiffs, da hoods, da goils. He sometimes provided colorfully callous captions for his shots; for a picture of a bloody corpse lying behind a bucket of lawn-bowling balls he wrote, This Was a Friendly Game of Bocce.
And Weegee loved himself. In 1956, he posed on a throne as the king of photography. The backs of his prints were stamped with a giant logo that read " Weegee the Famous. " He starred in self-promotional short films (two of which accompany the WAM exhibit).
How much of this was a pose and much was for real? He had genuine street cred. Weegee was a Ukrainian-Jewish immigrant whose family landed on New York’s Lower East Side in 1910. He broke into photography as a tintype photographer and a photo assistant, later shooting pictures of neighborhood kids on ponies. At 18, he left home and lived on the streets. In 1935, after stints at the New York Times and Acme Newspictures, he set out on his own. As a freelance press photographer, he cruised New York after dark, rubbing elbows with tough customers, hanging out in dives like Sammy’s on the Bowery, and rushing to the scenes of accidents, arrests, and murders. He valued the graphic and gruesome — corpses in the water, mobsters prone in pools of blood — because his sales depended on it. And he tailored his unkempt image to match his subjects.
Long after the fact, it hardly matters how much of that was for real. That Fellig went to the trouble to invent a celebrity alter ego itself makes him a lovable character. More important is the often suspect integrity of his work. David Acton, Worcester Art Museum curator of prints, drawings, and photographs, notes, " Throughout Weegee’s life, photography remained a kind of game, a racket, a tool to be exploited. "
When you look at Weegee’s post-war efforts — distorted and heavily manipulated images and unflattering candid shots of movie stars, many done when he temporarily left New York for Hollywood — you realize that he was doing just that. And failing. But when you work your way back out of that gallery — back past his classic crime shots (neighborhood kids reacting to Their First Murder, 1941), the human menagerie at Sammy’s (the beer-drinking midget in a diaper, Shorty, the Bowery Cherub, 1943; the overweight vaudevilleans Billie Dauscha and Mabel Sidney, 1944), the people crowding the fire escape above a murder site (Balcony Seat for a Murder, 1939), the cross-dresser in the paddy wagon (The Gay Deceiver, 1939), and the contrastingly sensitive pictures of Harlem and the Yiddish Art Theater — you realize that Weegee, whether he knew it or not, was much more than a photo-racketeer. As a shorthand cultural documentarian, he might well have been the genius he claimed to be. At the very least, he was a master of giving tabloid readers what they wanted, and his legacy is as much a document of that audience and the papers that pandered to it as of the exaggerated sordid world he photographed.
Weegee didn’t shoot Shorty the midget because he liked him or wanted to make a statement. Weegee shot Shorty because it was New Year’s Eve and here was a quirky guy making a fool of himself, and he knew the picture would sell. That’s what old-school freelance news photographers did. They milked the city for subjects and milked their subjects for hooks and angles. They were not above making a lot out of a little or, in a pinch, something out of nothing. On a slow night — no fire, no accident, no murder — a human-interest shot of Max the Bagel Man (Max Is Rushing in the Bagels . . . , 1940) might make page three. If you miss the fire, shoot the victims on the curb (A Couple Driven Out from the Burning Tenement . . . , 1944). If nothing’s happening, make something happen by asking a waitress to pose sleeping on a food rack (Cafeteria Sleeper, 1937).
A catchy caption was a sure-fire way to make a sale, and editors loved ham-fisted irony. Simply Add Boiling Water (1937) takes its title from the sign on the wall of the burning Hygrade hot-dog plant. Joy of Living is the name of the Irene Dunne musical comedy advertised on the marquee above the corpse of a car-accident victim. (The story goes that Weegee had the cops drag the body to the providential spot.)
Class conflict was also a marketable commodity to New York’s tabloids, and deflating the rich is a Weegee running motif. In Top Hats — In Trouble (1942) shows two well-dressed men covering their faces with their hats in a paddy wagon after being arrested for sliding down a banister at the Astor Bar. Perhaps Weegee’s most famous shot, The Critic (1943; originally titled The Fashionable People and actually published in Life, not a tabloid) shows an Apple Mary–esque woman scowling at two grand dames in evening dress. (Again, Weegee semi-posed the picture by getting the poor woman drunk and bringing her to the scene.) And gimmicks played well, which explains Weegee’s star-struck bobby-soxer triptych A Girl Smiles . . . , Then She Cries . . . , The Swoon (1944), and his eerie candids of movie audiences, which were shot in the dark with a Roloflex and infrared flash bulbs.
Mixed in with the hard-news shots are a few photos with more artistic than commercial value. Check out the joyful surrealism of Cab and Macy’s Clown (circa 1942), and the stark, ahead-of-its-time composition of Frank Pape, Arrested for Homicide (1944), which was shot through chain-link mesh.
Weegee’s evocative pre-war photos, of an era so long gone, look so real and tell us so much that you forget they were shot to sell, not explain. But the commercial angle was the operative reality at the time. Yes, these are real Bowery characters, real families sleeping on the fire escape, real murderers in custody, and real gangsters dead at the curb. If in retrospect these grab shots define a cultural landscape or create a historical document, so be it. Art and posterity are well served . . . even though nothing was farther from Weegee’s mind at the time.