PM, March 9, 1941 , pp. 48-51
Weegee Lives For His Work His Work And Thinks Before Shooting
By Ralph Steiner
Many people have asked me to write a piece about Weegee, the free-lance crime photographer whose pictures and stories appear so often in PM.
It is hard to write anything less than a book about Weegee, but I can say something about why he is a great photographer, which he certainly is.
His greatness as a crime photographer grows out of three things: First, his willingness to live entirely for his work. Second, his ingenuity in carrying it out. Third, his very intelligent approach to a kind of material which other photographers treat in a routine manner.
Some photographers might say that Weegee’s success is solely because he is Johnny-on-the-spot, but that’s not so. Early in his career he discovered that most corpses and fires look pretty much alike. Now he looks first for the human element, for anything incongruous, for little points which may be more interesting and revealing than the main event.
And there is the all-important fact that Weegee, unlike the majority of photographers I have met, is a rich personality. You can’t squeeze blood from a stone; nor can an editor squeeze good pictures out of a stony photographer. Weegee moves in a world of violence, brutality, bloodshed and horror, but the pictures he brings up out of it do not depend entirely on the drama of the event. They are good because Weegee adds a little of himself, and a little of Weegee is really something…
Life Ends at Night
“Another reason for working at night is because I like the way the city looks when the streets are empty. You can breathe. Besides, things happen at night. Most fires happen around one or two in the morning. Five o’clock is the jumping time. People are out of liquor and the gin mills are closed. Their resistance is low and if they’re going to do it, that’s when they do it.”
If he hasn’t had too hectic a night, Weegee goes over to 42d Street around 8:30 in the morning to see a gangster movie, or just a movie. “I don’t like Hedy Lamarr or Joan Bennett because when people emote, I like to see them emote. My favorite place to sleep is Trans Lux. Especially in summer. I take off my shoes and first thing I know I’m asleep. I can almost always count on getting a half hour’s sleep there.” Weegee finds that sleep is something of a problem when you work at night, but sometimes, he says, “I give myself a bonus—eight hours sleep.”
Weegee, [Weegee playing piano, New York], ca. 1937 (19904.1993)
Weegee, [Weegee with camera and woman, New York], ca. 1937 (20153.1993)
(Print made from two negatives and reminiscent of a photo printed in Life, April 1937, with the caption: “Fellig’s dream girl is just one of his jokes. He faked this picture to burlesque his bachelor existence. Fellig has no home, no wife, no family, doesn’t seem to want any.”)
People Are Wonderful
Weegee loves his work, although he often dreams of retiring to Hawaii. (“I’m learning the Hawaiian language so as to be ready.”) He can’t understand why so many news photographers and police reporters are bored. He thinks people are wonderful, especially when they’re anti-social, and he has endless curiosity about them. He wishes he had more time to take pictures of small human events he sees around the city that have nothing to do with crime, like couples in doorways. But fires, murders and suicides are interesting and the way people react to them more interesting yet. “Like one time: some woman jumped out of a hotel window. In the crowd is a young couple, holding hands and with the lovelight in their eyes, and there is that thing (the body).
“Sometimes a night goes by with no murder and it don’t seem right to me. I think something’s wrong.”
Weegee has taken thousands of pictures and he has thrown away tons of prints. He has no filing system and says he doesn’t need one. Most of his pictures are spot news, and therefore, if they’re ever used, they’re used right away. And if someone just wants a picture of a murder and he can’t find exactly the murder they have in mind, another one will do just as well because, as Weegee says, “it doesn’t take long in my business to find out that all murders are pretty much the same.”
Weegee’s Comment On His Craft:
“Most photographers always use the same old methods. We’ll assume that a horse-drawn wagon is going over the Williamsburg Bridge. A car hits it and the driver is tossed into the water and gets killed. The other photographers will take a picture of the bridge and then have an artist draw a diagram showing how the guy fell into the water. What I do is go and see what happened to the poor old horse.
“News photographers should not act like they are in the movies. Everyone will be co-operative if you just show a little consideration.
“When I take a picture of a fire, I forget all about the burning building and I go out to the human element. If I see a woman standing by a fire engine and crying, it’s much better than a picture of the building. The building is just a spectacle.
“When a crowd sees a camera they all turn around and say: ‘Go ahead and take the picture, Mister. What paper will it be in and what page will it be on?’ People always think a photographer knows what page a picture will be on. I say ‘Forget about the camera. Editors don’t like posey pictures.’ And I set my camera down. Pretty soon they get bored waiting for the picture and start watching the action. Then I take my picture.
“One time one of the newspapers assigned me to a three-alarm fire… I came back with a picture of a monster whale that had drifted into Sheepshead Bay. I got the whale picture exclusive.
“A photographer should have confidence in himself and if he gets a good idea he should go take it, even if everybody laughs at him.”
PM, March 9, 1941 , pp. 48-51
Weegee on a ledge above the Frank Lava Gunsmith shop, at 6 Centre Market Place, presumably waiting for some action across the street at Police Headquarters. His studio and home were located in the building on the right, 5 Centre Market Place. (1986.38)
Famous Photographers Tell How, Candid Recordings, 1958 (Some of the photos Weegee speaks about and their original published context can be seen here.)
Excerpts of Weegee’s section of the “Famous Photographers Tell How” record were first posted on-line on the Weegee’s World website, in 1997. Seen on the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine. Weegee tawking, with surprising modesty (“What I did anybody else can do.”) and unsurprising humor (“I got up 9 o’clock one night, and I says to myself: I’m gonna take a nice little ride and work up an appetite…”), is really wonderful. Weegee, “a great photographer, which he certainly is” was born 119 years ago today, June 12, 1899.