Wiring up police headquarters to get the shot.
Weegee, aka Arthur Fellig rose to prominence as an oddball freelance photographer during the thirties and forties who shot sensational scenes of crime and murder. His grim and strange imagery used what he referred to as the “Rembrandt lighting” technique, where according to Weegee, “Even a drunk must be a masterpiece.” (1). Although the term didn’t exist yet, he was truly one the first street photographers.
He started working various photography jobs at the age of fourteen to make ends meet. Primarily self-taught he made most of his money shooting tourists and landed a job at a photography studio. By the age of 24, he felt like he was in a rut and quit to work for Acme News Pictures. He sacrificed a pay cut, by half, but rationalized that it was an investment to learn something new. He took a job as a photo developer hoping that one day they’d give him a photography gig (2).
The one thing he did learn in the news industry was speed. These were the analog days. The first one to the telephone company office for the syndicate would make money off the images. Weegee went to such extremes as renting a private ambulance and parking out front to be ready for a quick getaway. Weegee hidden inside the ambulance would wait for the messenger to rush an exposed holder to him. Once in hand, they’d turn on the sirens and speed downtown while Weegee would lay on the floor as he developed the glass negative (3).
During a World Series game after the 1st home run, a messenger threw him an exposed holder. He caught it and ran towards the subway, jumping into a motorman’s booth, a restricted to train car operators, would lock himself in and develop the pictures (4).
He would never get a photography gig with Acme so he quit and decided he’d hang out at Police headquarters. As he put it, it was the nerve of the city and he’d be likely to find pictures that way. This is where he honed in on the subject matter that would help make a name for himself as he put it, “Crime was my oyster, and I liked it… my postgraduate course in life and photography (5).”
Without any credentials or press card, he’d hang out with police reporters in the back of the police station getting them coffee, running messages for them, tried to make friends and be part of the gang. When a story broke, he’d hitch a ride with them to the crime scene and take pictures. No one asked for his press card. The people at the crime scene assumed he was part of the press. (6). He still had no idea how to drive a car which is why he had to catch rides with the police reporters. He’d hang out at the missing person’s bureau between stories later at night when the crowd died down. He’d chat and make friends with the detectives. He’d ask them for driving lessons and they’d oblige as they’d want someone to talk to when no one was around. When he wasn’t able to get lessons he’d practice shifting gears with a broomstick handle (7).
He’d find success selling his photographs of the streets and gang violence as a freelance photographer and eventually had enough money to buy his own car with a police radio. Weegee became very comfortable with the police that he rented a room behind Police Headquarters and wired it up so he could pick up signals directly from the police radio dispatcher. From his days of working at Acme, he knew how critical it was to not only be first at the scene but also develop the images immediately. He created a mobile photo lab directly in the trunk of his car so he could develop his photographs right at the scene of the crime (8). Which in those days was as close as you get to instant. Sans camera phone, Instagram, and the internet.
It’s unusual that during Weegee’s life time he was not only successful in the popular media but was also respected by the fine art community. New York Photo League held an exhibition of his work in 1941, and The Museum of Modern Art began collecting his works and exhibited them in 1943 (9).
1. Traff, Thea. “The Original Nightcrawler.” The New Yorker. The New Yorker, 18 June 2017. Web. 29 July 2017. <http://www.newyorker.com/culture/photo-booth/photographer-weegee-original-nightcrawler>.
2. Weegee. “Location 308.” Weegee: The Autobiography. Memphis, TN: Devault-Graves Digital Editions, 2013. Amazon Kindle.
3. Idem. “Location 336”
4. Idem. “Location 355”
5. Idem. “Location 433”
6. Idem. “Location 435”
7. Idem. “Location 490”
8. Idem. “Location 1821”
9. Hostetler, Lisa. “Weegee.” International Center of Photography. N.p., 27 July 2017. Web. 29 July 2017. <https://www.icp.org/browse/archive/constituents/weegee?all%2Fall%2Fall%2Fall%2F0>.
Originally published at blog.viktorbezic.com.