Weegee and Early Crime Photography

Today our society has cameras everywhere, and we have become accustomed to being able to watch tragedy unfold. From the day in 1994 when twenty news helicopters tailed the Ford Bronco carrying O.J. Simpson on the afternoon he was to have turned himself in at police headquarters to the videos on both television and the Internet as Michael Jackson’s body was removed from his home on June 25, 2009 in Los Angeles, we have come to expect that we will be able to see moment-by-moment images of whatever tragic story is getting good press that day.

There was a time, however, when these images were not commonplace. Fifty to seventy-five years ago there were no portable video cameras, and people did not routinely carry their Brownie “pocket” cameras with them, so crime photographs had to be captured by the professionals who made it their business to be at a crime scene as soon as possible — an effort that required dogged diligence.

A photographer by the name of Arthur Fellig (1899-1968) and known as Weegee, worked the crime beat in the 1930s and ’40s, and he is the person who is most associated with this type of crime photography. His nickname was a phonetic re-creation of a reference to the game of Ouija. Some say he came to be called Weegee for his prescient ability to be in the right place at the right time to get the crime photographs; others say it was for his uncanny ability to capture just the right shot.

The truth was Weegee worked hard to accomplish both the “getting of the shot” and the taking of it, too. It was his passion, his art, his love, and his livelihood, and he developed a signature style of stark realism, documenting street life in New York City. Weegee noted this about the tasks before him: “Now the easiest kind of a job was a murder, because the stiff would be laying on the ground. He couldn’t get up and walk away and get temperamental and he would be good for at least two hours.”

As a freelance police beat photographer, Weegee operated out of a rented room behind police headquarters where he could learn quickly from teletypes and police radios what was happening. In a 1937 interview with writer Rosa Reilly that is now posted on a site devoted to Weegee’s World by the International Center of Photography, Weegee said he would stop in police headquarters early in the evening. If nothing was happening then:

I go on back to my room across from Police Headquarters and go to sleep. At the head of my bed I have a hook-in with the police alarms and fire gongs so that if anything happens while I’m asleep, I’m notified…When I get my pictures I hurry back to Headquarters. There is always a follow-up slip on an accident (or crime) with all the names and details coming in over the teletype. I found out who were injured, where they lived, and on what charges they have been arrested, so that I can caption my pictures correctly. Next I go back to my darkroom and develop my prints. By this time it is around six in the morning and I start out to sell my prints.

Fellig emigrated with his parents from Poland in 1909 when he was ten years old. While still a young teenager, he bought a pony and camera, and he would make the rounds of neighborhoods on weekends, taking photos of the children. His business did not last long; the cost of keeping a pony proved to be prohibitive. However, Fellig benefited from this experience and eventually found work as a news photographer.

His first collection of photographs, Naked City (1945) became the inspiration of a 1948 movie of the same name and later the title of a television police procedural.

Today when we see the telephoto shot depicting the strained emotions of Tiger Woods and wife Elin, or watch as the television news endlessly recycles the security camera footage of a shooting in a local delicatessen, it’s good to remember that at one point these photos would have been left to an artist like Weegee, who knew that the magic of picture-taking relied on the person behind the camera. In the last chapter of his book, Naked City, he wrote: “When you find yourself beginning to feel a bond between yourself and the people you photograph, when you laugh and cry with their laughter and tears, you will know you are on the right track.”

For more information on photography of the past, write “Photo” in the subject line. I’ll send you this month’s free newsblast by e-mail: [email protected]

For samples of Weegee’s photographs, visit: here.

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