The Genetic Wars by Barbara Confino

Weegee: An American Original

Photo by Weegee . Source: ICP.org
Wee Gee, “At his typewriter in the trunk of his Chevy” ca 1943
Perhaps other Western countries have a popular culture as vibrant and brash as America’s, but I do not know of them. Weegee, a word catchy as gizmo or gocha or gee whiz, the name Arthur Fellig invented for himself, is quintessential American slang. Not only movie stars but gangsters and con men, capitalists and strippers, virtually every kind of character conceivable became celebrated in the tabloids of his day. And squarely in their midst, as center stage as he could manage, was Weegee himself, his life, his persona, as much as his pictures, the man as much as the work, illustrating the power of image in America.

A stocky little man with a cigar in his mouth, the flash man with a Speed Graphic on the scene, a character out of Damon Runyon, Weegee reinvented himself in that classic American tradition. Talent, chutzpah and a flair for self promotion was all it took. Think Buffalo Bill, PT Barnum, Isadora, Madonna...the list is long.

As seedy as his subjects, Weegee was not the first tabloid photographer, but the one who became the living definition of the part. What with his portable rig and midnight sense of adventure, the myth of photographer as bold pioneer adhered well to him. The car with the police radio, the office in its trunk—all of it a bit like the covered wagons of Matthew Brady and Timothy Sullivan––along with his bare bones digs and outsider demeanor completed his legend.

Just as Brassai defined that of Paris, Weegee defined the image of New York at night. For Brassai it was the Paris of streetwalkers and brothels; for Weegee the New York of murderers and death. Somehow that seems to sum up both cities, not only in the popular imagination and media but also in the statistics.

Gangsters and small time crooks were his bread and butter, and “murder was his business”. This in an era when gangsters were legendary figures, their violence relished in the tabloid press as the most cunning form of entertainment, the tragic giving pride of place to the sordid in the popular mind.

And how often have we seen his images? In how many gangster movies or detective shows?

Photo by WeeGee . Source:
WeeGee
The sudden illumination of the flash, its awful brightness in the ink dark night. The bodies casually covered up, like afterthoughts or embarrassing remarks, a sheet carelessly thrown over the corpse. The garishness of death unadorned. The utter lack of ritualized respect. This is what appeals to us now. And what appealed to people when he first became famous. Look–– there are the neighbors peering over the rooftops, in equal parts horrified and thrilled!

With their grim repetitiveness and artless brutality his pictures epitomize the quixotic, dual nature of news photography: incontestably real yet thoroughly theatrical, contents so subsumed by their fictional equivalents in film and TV there is almost a doubling of perception. Is this the real version of the movie still or the movie reenactment of real life? Reality and fiction are montaged in a way familiar to us now, but not, I suspect, in Weegee’s day. Then reality and its photographic double were a relatively recent phenomenon, the camera’s awesome ability to describe and the photographer’s to fake, still new.

Though Weegee did not fake, his style was designed to provide maximum impact. Hard light, dark blacks, stark faces, odd angles, disjointed images––everything calculated to make you feel you were right there in the middle of the drama, looking down on the corpse, along with the bystanders, the cops, the murderer in cuffs, and the widow screaming in horror.

Photo by Weegee . Source: ICP.org
Wee Gee, “Ice-covered Firemen,” January, 1940

Once considered the lowest form of journalistic life, tabloid news photography has now reached the status of art. In an era that can never satisfy its appetite for rawness or bald faced voyeurism, its very artlessness has come into esthetic favor. Our contemporary voyeurs, Nan Goldin and Company, all owe an unacknowledged debt to him, the difference being that Weegee’s scenes were alive, even when their occupants were dead. Whereas in so much of his successors' work, everyone seems half dead to begin with.

Weegee: An American Original by Barbara Confino

Barbara Confino is an artist and writer whose work is housed in such collections as The Bibliotheque Nationale de France and the British Museum. Her graphic history, The Genetic Wars, can be viewed at www.thegeneticwars.com. Her writings on art and culture have been published in ArtsCanada and The Village Voice among other publications. She is currently associate editor for The New York Photo Review.
Share

Making Caribbean Dance by Susanna Sloat