Flash offers plenty of historical dirt for the rubbernecker, but it’s also a sensitive portrait that goes far deeper than the harsh light that was Weegee’s signature.
“What I look for in a murder is beauty. When I focus my camera, it’s not on the corpse but on the young couple that is holding hands looking on.” That’s how photographer Arthur Fellig, who at the height of his career stamped prints with instructions to credit “Weegee the Famous,” explained his method to a fellow shutterbug. Christopher Bonanos’ thoroughly researched biography of Weegee, Flash, reads like an adventure story set in a buzzing heyday of the New York newspaper world that’s far removed from today’s 24-hour news cycle but has some striking similarities.
Born Usher Fellig in Ukraine in 1899, the future Weegee immigrated with his family to New York, where they lived in a series of tenements on the Lower East Side. Weegee came up from the bottom of the photographic ladder; one of the origin stories behind his nom de lens came from his time as a lowly squeegee boy who worked in a busy darkroom to wipe down prints for the pro shooters. But the popular myth (and Weegee, an instinctual storyteller, is nothing if not a man of myth) was that the name came from the Ouija board and was attached to Fellig because he seemed to know where tragedy—and a great picture—would strike next.
As Bonanos explains, this psychic ability was mostly explained by dedicated footwork; much of Weegee’s early career was spent chasing down leads, some of which were the benefit of his relationship with the police, who granted him a rare permit to own a police band radio. But there were images that did indeed seem prescient, as when he would take a photo of a man who just five minutes later would be hit by a truck.
Bonanos tells breezy stories that chart the young Weegee’s street-wise inventiveness and rise to notoriety. In the days when the streets of the Lower East Side were still lined with horse-drawn carts, the photographer had a hustle in which he’d use a pony (named Hypo, after photographic chemicals) to essentially kidnap neighborhood children for a quick pony ride and photo, which he would then turn around and sell to the kids’ poor parents. This New York immigrant tale shifts gears into a kind of a tabloid journalism procedural when Bonanos takes us along for a ride with the older, more established Weegee as he spends a typical all-nighter running around New York chasing after fires and then-frequent (and very public) mob slayings in the ‘20s and ‘30s.
The photographer comes off more than a little morbid and lecherous, but Weegee cuts a sympathetic figure even if the reader is occasionally appalled by his behavior, and that’s apparently how his friends saw him too. Besides, that’s what sold papers then and gets clicks now. Still, despite his reputation for shock value, Weegee often captured a humanity that transcended sensationalism. His m.o. was simple but powerful. He didn’t want to simply go after the same photos all the other press shooters were taking; more often than not, he watched the watchers, turning the camera around from a burning tenement to the heartbroken survivors, from a crime scene to rubberneckers and a range of expressions from aghast to even gleeful.
Then again, the stark realism that was his specialty didn’t mean he was averse to staging a photo-op. One of his best-known photos, of a drunken woman sneering at two society dames outside the Metropolitan Opera, was in fact set up; Weegee had brought one of the regulars from his favorite Bowery bar along for the shoot and just waited for the planets to align.
Weegee grew tired of the nightly hunt and traded crime scenes for less gory subjects, and while his work became less consistent as a result, the book never flags, making even its subject’s failures into good stories. In chapters that dive into Weegee’s largely unsuccessful ambitions to become an actor, we learn that he once had a bit part in a nudist picture directed by exploitation legend Doris Wishman.
As Bonanos explains, it’s remarkable that Weegee’s work survives at all; most news photos of the day, unless they depicted such legends as Babe Ruth or defining tragedies such as the Hindenburg disaster, had a brief shelf life, printed once and never to be seen again. But thanks to the dedication of longtime companion Wilma Wilcox, the International Center of Photography in New York currently holds Fellig’s archives, some 500 boxes strong. Like its subject, Flash offers plenty of historical dirt for the rubbernecker, but it’s also a sensitive portrait that goes far deeper than the harsh light that was Weegee’s signature.