Weegee Wednesdays: “Wondering if that elusive fame I was after was worth while…”

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Weegee (1899-1968), Alfred Stieglitz (1864-1946), “a great photographer,” in the office of his gallery, 1944 (Portfolio 26)

71 years ago tomorrow PM published Weegee’s story of his encounter with Alfred Stieglitz with words by Weegee and a fraction of the above photo of Stieglitz seated on a cot in An American Place gallery, 509 Madison Avenue. Also in the photo is a painting of a pair of seagulls on rocks and water by John Marin (1870–1953), and a bunch of pillows and books, including Carl Sandburg’s four-volume biography Abraham Lincoln: The War Years (1939), which won a Pulitzer Prize in 1940. Todd Webb (1905-2000) made a similar portrait, in 1946.

There appears to be only one negative from this meeting, but there are three examples of Weegee’s reporting or non-photographic story telling to compare: PM, Sunday, May 7, 1944, half of the penultimate chapter, “Personalities,” in Naked City (1945), and a brief spoken version, released on the record “Famous Photographers Tell How” (1958). Some excerpts (and commentary/criticism) below:

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PM, May 7, 1944, p. M3

Weegee meets a great man
Weegee brought in a photograph of an old man sitting on a cot, his hands in his lap. Weegee is the cigar-smoking, crime, fire and seamy-side-of-life photographer who lives across the street from police headquarters and does his best work from midnight on.
“This is Stieglitz, Alfred Stieglitz, ” said Weegee. “He’s a great photographer. They called him the Old Master of the Camera in the Saturday Evening Post, [Thomas Craven, “Stieglitz – Old Master of the Camera,” Saturday Evening Post, 216 No.28, January 8, 1944] a couple of months ago.
“For me he is the answer to a question I ask myself sometimes,” said Weegee. “Hundreds of photographers, amateur and professional, including myself are trying to get recognition.
“It’s so tough and impossible that sometimes it makes your heart ache. This Alfred Stieglitz, he became famous both in Europe and America – one of the three, four greatest photographers.

One day he spoke
“On Madison Avenue, in the fifties, you can see him any morning, walking alone, an old man in a black hat. No one bothers to look at him. Just another character. I’ve noticed him many times, walking as if in a trance. I wanted to talk to him, but I was afraid to disturb him. Finally, one day I did. I walked up to him and said, “You Stieglitz?” He stared at me as though I had woken him from a dream. I told him my name. You know, I thought maybe he had read about me in PM or in the camera magazines. He told me he never read about other people or himself.
Stieglitz invited Weegee to his gallery…
“His gallery is called An American Place,” said Weegee. “The name was printed on the door. When he opened it, there was a strong smell of disinfectant, like in a sick room and it was fitted up with paintings hung on the wall.
“There was cubbyhole at the back of the gallery, with a cot in it, and Stieglitz slumped down on it, too exhausted to take his cape off. He started to talk, the most famous photographer in the world, the man who sponsored unknown painters and sculptors who are famous today.
“Stieglitz pointed to a phone near his cot. It never rings, he said. I have been deserted. The paintings on the wall are orphans. No one comes up to see them!
“He was a failure, he told me,” said Weegee, “and others were successful because they had wanted money, because they were politicians, showmen. He himself had not made a photograph in 10 years, and he had never used the products of Eastman Kodak because of their slogan You push a button. We’ll do the rest.”

He cried himself to sleep
“He told me: I am 81 years old. The happiest time in my life was in Berlin, at the turn of the century, when it was free. When I returned to America, I used to cry myself to sleep every night for two years thinking of the dirty streets here.
“I looked around the studio and asked Stieglitz how he lived, how he paid the rent… The rent and the expenses for the studio, about $4000 [approximately $53,345.91 in 2015] a year, were contributed by the artists when they sold any of their paintings and other interested individuals.
“Suddenly he slumped over in pain. My heart. It’s bad. He said it in a whisper as he slumped over on the cot. I hung around there for a while, waiting until he recovered. And then left quietly and shut the glass door with the words painted on it, AN AMERICAN PLACE.
“It doesn’t seem right that such a great artist should have such a little reward,” said Weegee.

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Weegee (1899-1968), Naked City (1945), pp. 232-235

PERSONALITIES
Alfred Stieglitz became famous both in Europe and America as the master of the camera, and what did fame get him?
On Madison Avenue in the fifties… morning… noon… and night a lone man walks the streets…No one pays any attention to him…
“You Stieglitz? I’m Weegee. You may have read about me in magazines, or seen my pictures in PM.”
…then up to 509 Madison Avenue where we took the elevator to the seventeenth floor. We stopped at a door. On the glass was painted AN AMERICAN PLACE. It wasn’t locked and we walked in…
I had so many questions to ask… the hours went by fast… (I was wondering if I was going to find a ticket on my jalopy parked at the door.)
I switched the talk back to photography. Was he a success? No, he was a failure… A picture needed careful planning and thinking and could only be captured on film at a certain fleeting fraction of a second… and once that passed, that fraction of a second was dead and could never be brought back to life again… that he had never compromised with his photography, for money or to please an editor. One had to be free to do creative work.
What about his influence on American photographers? Could he teach them to do the same things he accomplished? The answer was a firm no…
I asked Stieglitz how he lived and paid the rent…
Suddenly he slumped over in pain. “My heart, it’s bad,” he said in a whisper as he slumped over on the cot. I waited till he recovered then left quietly… wondering if that elusive fame I was after was worth while.

Weegee talking about photographing Alfred Stieglitz can be heard below.

I once photographed and did a story on Stieglitz. Truly a great photographer. And we started talking about things and, and he said, ahh… 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. Famous Photographers Tell How (1958)

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Alfred Stieglitz (1864-1946), [Letter to Weegee], 1945

An American Place
Sept 11-45

Dear Weegee: A copy of your “Naked City” was given to me. My laurel wreath I hand to thee…
Alfred Stieglitz

On September 11th, 1945, over a year after their meeting and several weeks after Naked City was published, Stieglitz wrote this delightful letter to Weegee. Weegee must have left an impression of Stieglitz. Weegee’s musings on fame and his encounters in the forties with famous photographers are fascinating, including a photo of the great Lisette Model, working at Nicks Jazz Joint. The other photographer featured in Naked City, in the “Personalities” chapter, after Stieglitz, is Pat Rich, “who is known as the Virtuoso of the Cheese Cake (leg) photo” (Naked City, p. 237). Weegee knowingly and enjoyably mixes high and lowbrow culture, although the lines between them might have been a little less opaque seventy years ago.

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Weegee (1899-1968), Naked City (1945), pp. 236-237.

…Both images [of Stieglitz and Rich] are accompanied by extensive meditation on the role of the photographer. Suggesting that Stieglitz is “a failure,” Weegee indicts the elderly master for his ethereal focus on highbrow goals, and asks us to see himself as a popular rescuer of the tradition Stieglitz has left in flaccid debilitation. Conversely, Rich is presented as a more positive role model… Yet, despite this masculine vigor, Rich lacks the cultural ambition Weegee identifies with Stieglitz. Each photographer thus functions as an opposing pole on a continuum, from the extreme aesthete to the explicit populist. Just as he uses the photo essay format to balance between hard-boiled street tales and the glossy aesthetic of the museum, Weegee asks us to see himself as the innovator of a photographic vision that melds Stieglitz’s enterprise with the uninhibited potency of Rich’s girlie shots. Weegee’s final chapter, the text only, “Camera Tips,” emphasizes this, suggesting that readers should recognize “Weegee the Famous” as a successor to these men. – V. Penelope Pelizzon and Nancy M. West, “Good Stories” from the Mean Streets: Weegee and Hard-Boiled Autobiography, Yale Journal of Criticism, 17, no.1, 2004. pp. 43-44

By May 7th, 1944 Weegee had been using the “Weegee the Famous” stamp on his photos for a few years, and had become a well known photographer, had hundreds of photos published in newspapers and magazines annually for several years, exhibited photos at the Photo League and MoMA, (Action Photography, 1943, and was weeks away from inclusion in another exhibition at MoMA, Art in Progress, 1944), and was about a year away from the zenith of his fame, with the publication of Naked City. It’s possible to argue, (although not my opinion), that at 45 years old, his best work was behind him, that he had already made his best and most famous photographs.

Throughout the 1940s, Weegee positioned himself as an increasingly central character in the photographs and stories he contributed to PM. His articles focused on the art of picture taking nearly as much as on the people and events pictured. Consider some of the headlines to his feature stories at the time: [“Weegee meets a great man.”]… To a degree unprecedented for a freelance photographer at the time, Weegee drew attention to the behind-the-scenes drama of photography – a drama in which he was, of course, the star. Although he would later instruct aspiring photographers that “it is the picture that counts, not you!” Weegee’s own pictures, captions, and stories tirelessly showcased their creator. – Weegee and Naked City, Richard Meyer (and Anthony Lee), pp. 27-28.

Weegee’s meeting with Stieglitz, and the story of the encounter in PM, are significant steps in the evolution of Weegee’s photographs – from illustrations in newspapers to framed, exhibition quality (“vintage”) prints on museum walls; and the evolution of Weegee from “tabloid” photojournalist to Artist…

Bibliography:
Anthony W. Lee and Richard Meyer, Weegee and Naked City, University Press, 2008
V. Penelope Pelizzon and Nancy M. West, “Good Stories” from the Mean Streets: Weegee and Hard-Boiled Autobiography, Yale Journal of Criticism, 17, no.1, 2004. pp. 20-50

Weegee Wednesday is an occasional series exploring the life and work of Weegee.

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