PRINT March 1998


It is not enough to be exceptionally mad, licentious, and fanatical in order to win a great reputation; it is still necessary to arrive on the scene at the right time.

Paparazzi are notoriously ruthless characters who trade in visual exposure and derision. In the photographs taken by Weegee for the New York tabloids of ca. 1935-45, those paparazzo effects of sensationalism and impudence are crossed with laughter, which destabilizes everything. Though his methods are often expeditious in themselves, they are so charged by conflicting drives as to produce strikingly incongruous emotional content. His freelance crime scenes often look comedic when they’re supposed to be forensic. Escaping by a hair from a burning building, people break down not from trauma, but in mirth. And what was it about being arrested that caused some suspects to smirk?

Weegee’s notion of funniness was based on the gag and the wisecrack, which he projected onto dramatic, incriminating, even calamitous situations. This way of finding low humor in “human interest” picture stories—or forcing it into them—was nothing new, but he took it to extremes. So he used hilarity as a cover for his own libido, which led him to leer with a Speed Graphic down bodices or up skirts. And he had a genuine interest in the grotesque, isolated by a flash in hard-edged grimaces and convulsions.

The ordinary behavior of Weegee’s New Yorkers is rarely less than hyperbolic. Their eyes sparkle and they pantomime wildly, as did actors in the silent movies for which he once played the fiddle in earlier days. No matter how grievous or joyous the human moment, he tended to see it as farce. Many writers have alluded to the affinity of his photos with Hollywood noir, without noting his allegiance to slapstick and Keystone. Repeatedly, schlemiels or sad sacks of every type have been marooned in sinister milieus where they can and sometimes do get killed. This son of a peddler who later became a rabbi had a lot to answer for, and his wonderfully tasteless pictures don’t do it.

I remember coming out of the Weegee retrospective at the International Center of Photography in 1977 with Lucas Samaras, who admired the playful shock of the show, yet at the same time was put off by work not based “on art ideas.” Those lifeless bodies were never, after all, going to get up again. If anything, the ICP Midtown’s recent “Weegee’s World: Life, Death, and the Human Drama,” a larger survey curated by Miles Barth, had an even more pungent impact. For just as these images excite the eye, Weegee’s setups and encounters with New York life grate with a psychic dissonance that stops you cold. However much this flip and inconsequent tone may typify a certain aspect of Yiddish storytelling, it went astray in the medium of photography. It’s hard to recover what was meant by his impertinence in scenes of real terror, or by his harshness toward those who were having a good time.

Gradually, though, we realize that the “good time” happened to be acidified by an imagemaker not self-reflective enough to be an artist in our sense of the word, even as he knew that he was more than a reporter. Weegee savored the laughter caused by pleasure, surprise, wonder, relief, nerves; he took marvelous inventories of these emotions. He was particularly attuned to the bliss evoked by gospel in Harlem, drinks at Sammy's, and jazz in the Village. But the feelings that seem to have meant the most to him, judging by the frequency with which they were pictured, were the laughter of triumph and the smile of complicity.

A staple of such interchange was people brightening up when he singled them out. They were about to become news, and they acted on reflex. Such was the case in the astonishing shot of a drowned-looking victim whose girlfriend couldn’t help flashing a smile at the photographer. Other subjects might very well have been amused by the clownish man with a cigar and flash, or, at the least, they went along with the joke, like the jolly plainclothesman who shows off his catch, a dwarf arrested for selling “French postcards.” Quite typically, people seem to be laughing with Weegee, most likely at someone else’s expense. When it was a question of “Der Fuehrer” hung in effigy by a Times Square crowd, we hardly disagree. Likewise, the war-victory celebrations all over town, which look like block parties. But what of the man thrown like a slab of meat on a police desk, his face tense with shame, his overcoat revealing his naked thigh and a peek of lingerie, surrounded by cops who grin for the birdie? Case closed for Weegee, but, for us, disconcertingly open. The picture might even be more terrible than Robert Capa’s famous shot of the shorn woman “collaborator”—she slept with a German—mobbed down a Chartres street. Capa is distanced from the crowd, but Weegee aligns himself unconcernedly with those who mock. The levity displayed in Weegee’s occasional pictures of gay men locked up for sexual exhibitionism was a familiar attitude of America at war, where only the “right” kind of male bonding was admissible.

At the same time, Weegee’s humor has a distinctly Gotham aspect to it. How else, his images say to us over and over, could these New Yorkers get through their day but with laughter? It was basic equipment for survival, a reflex of life itself. The sense of it takes the edge off the chronic adversity Weegee had known well in his own hand-to-mouth existence. He said that laughter released others from their loneliness and relieved him of his “inferiority complex.” On the one hand, it seems as if he revels in misfortune, but on the other, since he never takes it seriously, there can be no tragedy or pathos in his world. There’s just bad luck—and people do bounce back from bad luck.

If Weegee behaves as a man of the people, he was not “for” them, not one of the concerned photographers, those liberals who worked for the Farm Security Administration during the Depression. He never strikes their note of solicitude, nor did he have their humanist but alienated tone. Liberals are also implicitly unhappy about authoritarianism; he wasn’t. His relationship with the police has been likened to the problematic face-off between the private eyes and the cops in Raymond Chandler’s or Dashiell Hammett’s detective fiction of the period. But this is wrong. Weegee was indebted to the forces of law and order because of the shortwave police radio they permitted him to have, and he reciprocated by giving them publicity. For the sake of it, they often reenacted their busts, which allowed him to pretend he had gotten to the bad scene exactly on time. No documentary photographer would have claimed, as Weegee once did, that police headquarters was his home. Still, the alliance between this small—time hustler and the men in blue was only expedient. Their guardian culture had no chance of escaping his satire any more than the misbegotten citizens who were, like Weegee himself, at the bottom of the food chain.

“Poor people,” he wrote, “are not fussy about privacy; they have other problems.” This is disagreeable straight talk from one of them who knew. Revealingly, it comes from an anecdote in his autobiography where he tells of making out with a poor girl on a tenement roof. The consent he had then, as an adolescent, foretold the different kind he sought out later, as a randy newshound. In fact, he could count on far more openness to his prying maneuvers than anyone in his line today. But he had a surplus nosiness that took him away from social compacts into movie houses, where he spied on lovers by means of infrared film, in the process creating a whole new category of voyeurist imagery. Naked City, the 1945 book that made him truly famous, advertises his role as an urban tour guide who promises sexy disclosures. It marked a crossover success from tabloid sensationalism into hard cover, confirming the prejudices that WASP, small-town America had of New Yorkers, as well as the unbuttoned notion New Yorkers had of themselves.

Naked City starts with a pictorial essay on sleep, or rather, sleeping it off, the main activity of New York on early, still-dark Sunday mornings. Bodies are strewn every which way—inside cars, in flophouses, on sidewalks—in gauche slumber. Proposed as a genre touch, the images of sleepers actually reflect one of Weegee’s obsessive themes. For in their vulnerability they act as cousins to his dead crooks or accident victims, prone creatures who also can’t defend themselves against his exploitive glance. Overcome by passion, unaware of his presence, or simply out of it, people are typically seen at a disadvantage. For a split second that exists endlessly in his photographs, their dignity had been stripped away. If, in the act of exercising the control over them that he needed, they happened to smile back, complicitly, they only serviced the narcissism of this man who touted himself as Weegee the Famous. Miles Barth has found several hundred pictures of Weegee himself in the photographer’s archive. To be an object was evidently as much a thrill for him as to be the agent of a gaze.

In all this, Weegee revealed a flair for satisfying the appetites of, not just supplying news to, his public. He chased after celebrities and wanted to be one, but he placed ordinary citizens, without hesitation, at the top of his A-list. Compared with the paparazzi of today, who ignore the underclass even as they cater to it, his work represents an authentic, cunning view from beneath. He was the paparazzo of the nameless; he conferred on them a glamour that was no less gratifying because it was ephemeral.

In the twentieth-century photographic record ofNew York, Weegee’s work broke ground with a manipulative zeal, which affected the emotional temperature in the great, dark-minded imagery—notably that of Diane Arbus—that came later. His originality does not consist of his invasive tactics or of the historical sweep of his record, considerable as these were. The problem of photographing the city is the challenge, I think, of depicting countless others in close quarters, with a consistency that does justice to them as well as to one’s own perceptions. Here, Weegee introduced a rough sense of brotherhood, without implying shared humanity. His predecessors treated the problem with a poetic realist embrace, tinged with regret, which acknowledged their distance from others. But Weegee blazed away with such acute knowledge as to betray his kinship with his subjects. Maybe this accounts for his utterly unique accent of chilling camaraderie, masked by his view of New York as just one long hoot.

In his signature handling of the crowd, Weegee reached the acme of his comedic form. He liked multitudes, as they added to the density, chaos, and excitement of the kind of picture he wanted. The smaller gatherings afforded him that convulsive intimacy he craved; as for the larger ones, he did nothing less than fix them as a permanent icon of New York. In his pictures of the beach at Coney Island his weird populism comes out most affably. For a few years starting about 1939, he made it an annual summer rite to photograph the beachgoers, en masse. Here, he got what looks like the whole populace of the city to “sit” for its portrait. If today the Coney Island madness is a cliche, he’s the man who made it so.

Predictably, Weegee’s panorama, though shot from a height, lacks grandeur; it purveys only sweating flesh and motley squinting faces, crammed from near to far, where they’re indistinguishable in an endless jumble of optical points. Out-of-towners might well disbelieve that anyone could imagine the alarmingly congested scene to be a place of leisure, but Coney Island was, for this native, his natural element. Whatever he did to captivate the bathers, he made them look as if they were the audience, and he a performer, or maybe a maestro, conducting a partly attentive, mostly indifferent orchestra of hundreds of thousands.

But Weegee did more than call the shots; he produced images whose historical value is all the more revealing because inadvertent. One has to remember that his farcical gallery of New Yorkers was a photo album of home-front people going through the worst war of all time. In mood and in subject, his Coney Island at Noon, Saturday, July 5th, 1942, taken a month after the Americans had won big at Midway, was inconceivable anywhere else in the world. Despite our travails, all of us, including Weegee, were winners who really never gave the prospect of defeat a second thought. Being the decisive force in the world’s conflicts was very well, but what these motley, completely unheroic people needed to do was get to the water and cool off. Thirty-odd years after Lewis Hine showed immigrants streaming into Ellis Island, their descendants were photographed during an equally momentous era in our history, on the beach at Coney Island, by a tabloid journalist who was probably thinking of fifteen dollars for a weekend spread.

The Coney Island pictures were pacific counterparts to the bloody-minded crime scenes, accidents, fires, fistfights, riots, and brawls of every sort that functioned as normal fare to the vast newspaper readership. All such frenzies thrived in the same unimaginative atmosphere of the democratic juggernaut, and they all came in large numbers. After 5,000 murders, Weegee admitted that he was hard put to keep things lively. In her 1948 novel The Locusts Have No King, Dawn Powell supposes another opportunist’s similar crassness toward the war: “Tyson was fifty-two and had been spoiled by the war into believing that young girls really adored him. It still baffled him that the sweet kids who used to rhumba and jump for balloons with him at the Stork Club now called him up only to get jobs for their returned soldiers. It made him throw his weight very vigorously on the side of bigger armies and more wars.”

Powell’s characters were fond of slumming at Sammy’s on the Bowery, which Weegee called “the poor man’s Stork Club.” The impulse toward visual burlesque that runs through his work was best accommodated when he cruised this tacky dive. Here he found a literal stage where performers and spectators exchanged roles, according to the drunken moment. Here, too, the theatricalism of his style and the lore of the city were distilled in photographs that were all bourbon and no water. As we learn from the show’s catalogue, Weegee brought an intoxicated denizen up from Sammy’s to greet ermine-clad socialites arriving at the Metropolitan Opera, a memorable occasion from which he got his picture The Critic. The shot was a direct hit by his New York on Edith Wharton’s old New York.

Just the same, when “performers” and spectators were more or less set up in his images, they merely illustrate an attitude rather than flash out a reality. If people gaped at the rich the same way they looked at fires, that’s an interesting but ultimately rhetorical point. More often, he visualized something different, which is the indeterminate product of the contest between his opportunism and his undeserved repute for anticipating action. In Weegee’s reportage, we sense ourselves as witnesses, rather, to the aftermath of a highly charged event. To be sure, the primal heat of it still energizes the crowd, who were there before “us”; it still ruffles their expressions. And the just-missed cause, or climax, of which we have only the effect, acts as quite a tease.

Lacking a narratively clear “decisive moment,” Weegee had to be content with reaction shots. He’s drawn to and repeats a basic tableau: his camera pointed at others, most of whom are looking at something else, a few at him. And what he discovers, unlike the silent movies, is that neither the faces nor the bodies are collectively “in tune” with the scenario. Suddenly, the nominal happening he frames is redefined as a congeries of inattentive, distracted, unknowing, or ill-prepared individuals. When he accepted what he couldn’t help and turned it into a drama of its own, Weegee visualized his best and most truthful pictures. When he arranged or positioned figures in his cornball way, he gave us preachy social comedy. Their First Murder, which combines catcalls with fury and shock, is a much more compelling image than The Critic.

In many of his crowds, the quantity of limbs people have seems at odds with the prescribed number. Sociality is a kind of physical entanglement that his flash obscures or accentuates to capricious effect. Yet Weegee at least makes clear his own social responses to his subjects by typing their gestures. He accepts hysteria, but ridicules histrionics, which he associates with the affectations of the rich and their cultural fetishes, opera and ballet. Certainly his class animus is mixed up with his insecurity over the artistic value of his “new” photographs. He imagined in the ’50s that his Picassoid distortions and cartoon trick lens shots of celebrities, everywhere dismissed, were his real, “high” art.

In this, of course, Weegee misunderstood the fact that his own gift for caricature depended on the opportunity furnished by news. Nevertheless, news, in his hands, was not exactly treated as real life. He himself perceived as much when he alluded to “Rembrandt lighting,” an art-historical reference that might have served as an alibi but could not have inspired his killer instinct. If anything, Weegee’s flash seems to exaggerate his aggression at the same time as his misplaced drollery neutralizes its very thrust. To our postmodern eyes, the element of fantasy in Naked City might appear as a premature attempt to deconstruct the media, on the part of an upwardly mobile maverick. But this judgment would mistake the book’s lurid style for critique, and I think it fails to account for why Weegee was so eager to crack jokes that fell flat. However normal for him, this crazy process remains fascinating precisely because we can’t resolve it. It’s as if Abbott and Costello got in the ring with Caravaggio. The result may indeed be a conceit worthy of today, but the fact is, it happened in the ’40s, and was entirely of its period. They don’t make them like Weegee anymore.

Max Kozloff’s collection of essays entitled Lone Visions, Crowded Frames was recently published by the University of New Mexico Press.