Weegee by Weegee

BOMB 20 Summer 1987
020 Summer 1987
Weegee 01 Body

This is the most wonderful experience for any man or woman to go through. It’s like a modern Aladdin’s lamp—you rub it, in this case it’s a camera. You push a button and it gives you the things you want. News photography teaches to think fast, to be sure of yourself, self-confidence. When you go out on a story, you don’t go back for another sitting. You’ve got to get it. I have found covering stories as they happen … in my particular case I didn’t wait ’til somebody gave me a job or something, I went and created a job for myself—freelance photographer. And what I did, anybody else can do. What I did simply was this: I went down to Manhattan Police Headquarters and for two years I worked without a police card or any kind of credentials. When a story came over a police teletype, I would go to it. The idea was I sold the pictures to the newspapers. And naturally, I picked a story that meant something. In other words, names make news. There’s a fight between a drunken couple on Third Avenue or Ninth Avenue in Hell’s Kitchen, nobody cares. It’s just a barroom brawl. But if society has a fight in a Cadillac on Park Avenue and their names are in the Social Register, this makes news and the papers are interested in that. I covered all kinds of stories from Murder Incorporated to the opening of the opera to a Cinderella Ball at the Waldorf. In other words, you take everything in its stride. The same camera that photographs a murder scene can photograph a beautiful society affair in a big hotel.

Now 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. At fires you had to work very fast.

Weegee 02 Body

Courtesy Ledel Gallery.

One of the best pictures I ever made, just to give you an aside: I got up nine o’clock one night and I says to myself, “I’m going to take a nice little ride and work up an appetite.” 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. This was a nice, balmy hot summer’s night. 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 photographer there and he made what we call a ten foot shot. He made a shot of just the guy laying in the doorway. That was it. But to me, this was drama. This was like a backdrop. 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. That picture won me a gold diamond with a real genuine diamond. So that was it.

I try to humanize the news story. Of course I ran into snags with the dopey editors. If it was a fire, they’d say, “Where’s the burning building?” I says, “Look, they all look alike.” I says, “Look, here’s the people affected by the burning building.” Well, some understood it and some didn’t.

In one case I went to a tenement house fire. Here’s the mother and daughter looking up hopelessly. Another daughter and baby are burning to death. Now, at a fire, what happens? Those that are lucky to get out of the burning tenements gather in the street, of course. Then the firemen start counting noses. They want to see how many people are there. And I noticed also at this particular fire, the aide to the chief came out and he says, “Boss, this is a roast,” meaning somebody, one or more persons, had burned to death. That’s what the fireman called “a roast.” And I saw this woman and her daughter looking up hopelessly. I took that picture. To me that symbolized the lousy tenements and everything else that went with them.

Weegee 03 Body

From PM Magazine, Tuesday, August 5th, 1941, New York.

I will walk many times with friends down the street and they’ll say, “Hey Weegee, here’s a drunk or two drunks laying in the gutter.” I take one quick look at them and say, “They lack character.” So even a drunk must be a masterpiece. I will drive around all night or all year looking for a good drunk picture. One of the most beautiful ones I got after riding around two years, then I made my drunk picture, was a guy on Amsterdam Avenue. One Sunday morning about five o’clock, he was sleeping underneath a canopy of a funeral undertaking parlor. Now that to me was a picture. Of course the obvious title would be Dead Drunk.

In other words, I am a perfectionist. When I take a picture, if it’s a murder or if it’s a drunk, it’s got to be good. When a person gets in trouble and they get arrested, the first thing they do is cover up their faces. Editors don’t like it. They say, “Don’t give me any excuses. Give me a picture so our readers can see what the person looks like.”

For example, the New York cops arrested a woman who was wanted for a $25,000 jewel robbery in Washington, DC. The woman, being a dope, was naturally captured. She was in a cell downstairs in the basement of Manhattan Police Headquarters. I went down, she started to cover up. I says, “Look lady, save your energy. I’m not going to take your picture. All I want to do is talk to you.” She says, “I know what you want. You want to take my picture. Why should I let you? So my friends, relatives, and mother can see it on the front pages of the newspapers?” I said, “Now wait a minute lady, don’t be so hasty. You have your choice. Do you want your picture to appear in the papers, a rogues’ gallery picture with your number underneath it? Or would you let me make a nice, home portrait study of you using nice, soft lighting like Rembrandt would have done?” Talking and arguing with her, I convinced her that that was the only logical thing for her to do, to pose for a picture. Now that was a good catch you might say for me, besides the New York cops.

Anyway, this showed that by arguing with people, you can get them to uncover. People are reasonable. Even jewel thieves.

Weegee 04 Body

From PM Magazine, July 20th, 1941, New York.

And why I think the definition of a news shot would be this, a news picture rather, I once photographed and did a story on Steiglitz, truly a great photographer. And we started talking about things and he said, “Something happens, it’s a thousandth part of a fleeting second. It’s up to the photographer to capture that on film because like a dying day, the thing will never come back again.”

20 Weegee 01 Body

Weegee, Untitled, Drunks Dancing, circa 1940.

Tape courtesy the International Museum of Photography at George Eastman House.

Michael Winterbottom by Gary M. Kramer
Michael Winterbottom 01

Crime, gossip, and feeding the media machine.

Telling the Both/And Story: Emma Copley Eisenberg Interviewed by Sarah Gerard
Book cover of Emma Copley Eisenberg's The Third Rainbow Girl

On writing into the other meanings of a hometown murder mystery.

Truing Perception: Jeff Sharlet Interviewed by Emily Raboteau
Car burning on roadside on the cover of Jeff Sharlet's book This Brilliant Darkness A Book of Strangers

On making documentary art and the imperfect pursuit of empathy.

Originally published in

BOMB 20, Summer 1987

Christopher Durang, Duane Michals by David Seidner, Steve Erickson, and Mona Simpson.

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020 Summer 1987