Down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean — armed with nothing more than a camera, a flashbulb, and a police-band receiver. Before Law & Order, HEADLESS BODY IN TOPLESS BAR, and the “eight million stories” of Jules Dassin’s Naked City, there was the wandering eye of Usher Fellig. Born in 1899 in Zloczew, now in Ukraine, but then part of the Austrian Empire, Usher was renamed Arthur by the immigration men at Ellis Island and renamed again by the New York Police De-partment, whose officers stood in awe of his seemingly clairvoyant nose for the action. The first time was to make him American, but the second time would make him immortal. Fellig himself took to stamping his work “Credit Photo by Weegee the Famous.”
“[A] photograph is a witness,” said Roland Barthes, “but a witness of something that is no more.” Weegee, who at one point estimated that he’d shot 5,000 murder scenes, put it another way:
The easiest kind of a job to cover was a murder because the stiff would be laying on the ground. He couldn’t get up and walk away or get temperamental. He would be good for at least two hours.
The International Center of Photography, which holds a massive collection of Weegee’s photographs, films, and memorabilia, has mounted this exhibition made up primarily of his crime-scene photography from 1935–46. A huge model revolver, like the one that hung outside Frank Lava Gunsmith at 6 Centre Market Place, greets and warns the visitor. Weegee lived one door down, at No. 5, in a squalid room, reproduced at ICP like an impeccably detailed Natural History diorama.
Weegee cared for nothing but his work. According to one writer, he subsisted on a diet of “Campbell soups, Heinz vegetarian baked beans, [and] Uneeda biscuits.” With his monster-movie looks and rumpled clothing, he resembled exactly what he was, a man who worked all night, slept little, and saw things nobody wants to admit wanting to see.
Even Weegee’s most cheerful snaps, a number of which ICP throws in for balance, take on a darker cast when considered in light of his subtly perverse humor. His postcard-perfect shot of the jam-packed Coney Island beach, an inexhaustible visual interpretation of Emma Lazarus’s “teeming shore,” looks like nothing so much as an ant-encrusted cruller. Another photo, of a policeman admiring the rescued kittens in his hands, makes the viewer laugh, then cringe. The picture is a powerful, if perhaps accidental, depiction of vulnerability. For every kitten saved from a tenement fire—
“Boss, this is a roast.” Fireman’s code, Weegee learned, for a blaze with fatalities, and he captured these from the outside in. “I ran into snags with the dopey editors,” he recalled. “If it was a fire, they’d say, ‘Where’s the burning building?’ I says, ‘Look, they all look alike.’ ” So he’d forgo the blaze itself and instead photograph the tenants lucky (or unlucky) enough to survive. In one photo, two women, a mother and daughter, writhe and shriek as though still trapped inside. The elder, clutching her makeshift headscarf, might as well be the Madonna at the foot of the cross.
They are losing their loved ones. We are witnessing something that is no more, seeing the fire more clearly in their eyeballs than in any more literal-minded image.
Weegee had a flair for the unspeakable. He was willing not only to catch people in their worst moments but also to get this down to a science. He had permission to use a police radio—in fact, he was the first civilian to enjoy this strange privilege—and he outfitted his vehicles, whether Fords, Chevrolets, or rented ambulances, with darkrooms so that he could get a quick turnaround. On the payroll of tabloid dailies like PM, he saw the whole world through the noose of gallows humor. Many of his pictures are self-contained punchlines. One fire he deigned to shoot in the person of the building itself only because that building, sprayed with high-powered jets, bore the advertising slogan SIMPLY ADD BOILING WATER.
Weegee anticipated Diane Arbus with glimpses of New York’s wild side: transvestites, a diapered, beer-swilling midget called the “Bowery Cherub,” necking moviegoers in cockeyed 3-D glasses—but it’s the murders for which he’ll really be remembered. Expired gangsters, Murder Inc. hitmen, bodies crumpled against bloodied pavement, dazed cop-killers on their way to central booking—and so to the chair. A discarded suitcase, with and without the hogtied corpse found inside. Nothing was so disturbing that it could discourage the cigar-chomping voyeur from inspecting it, not even a cluster of rubberneckers, none older than 13, grinning in the carnival atmosphere of a murder scene.
Of a favorite shot, he said,
I arrived right in the heart of Little Italy, 10 Prince Street. Here’s a guy had been bumped off in the doorway of a little candy store. . . . The detectives are all over, but all the five stories of the tenement, people are on the fire escape. They’re looking; they’re having a good time. Some of the kids are even reading the funny papers and the comics. There was another pho-tographer there and he made what we call a 10 foot shot. He made a shot of just the guy laying in the doorway. . . . I stepped all the way back, about a hundred feet. I used flash powder, and I got this whole scene—the people on the fire escapes, the body, everything. Of course the title for it was Balcony Seats at a Murder.
Among the many artifacts on view here, courtesy of curator Brian Wallis, the one most faithful to the Weegee experience is a check stub from Life, $35 for “two murders.” Blood money? The model of Usher Fellig’s shabby quarters lies waiting to rebuke anyone who’d accuse him of exploitation or opportunism. Part of his working night was spent looking, having a good time. The greater part was spent translating human frailty into a vocabulary any dope could understand.
If that’s a crime, we’re all accomplices.
Stefan Beck writes on fiction for the New Criterion and elsewhere.