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Weegee

Weegee (New York tabloid photographer Arthur Fellig) [1]

Weegee (New York tabloid photographer Arthur Fellig)

1,537 words

In a very good Jewish film about Depression-era Irish American gangsters, Road to Perdition (2002), English actor Jude Law played a creepy Irish crime photographer-cum-hit man named Harlen Maguire. Maguire lovingly shoots pictures of dead bodies (including his victims’) at crime scenes.

Though a composite, Law’s character is based in large part on real-life Jewish crime scene photographer “Weegee,” born Ascher Fellig in Austrian Galicia (present-day Ukraine) in 1899. He migrated with his family to the Lower East Side in 1910; after much study, his father became a rabbi.

One major difference between Maguire and Weegee: Maguire’s (false) claim in the film—”I shoot the dead. Dead bodies, that is. I don’t kill them”—was true of Weegee. The photographs in Harlen Maguire’s apartment in the movie are real-life 1930s crime scene pictures, some taken by Weegee himself.

Weegee claimed to have snapped 5,000 murders over the course of his career as one of New York’s leading tabloid photographers—an estimate deemed “perhaps only slightly exaggerated.”

In the 1920s he worked as a darkroom assistant for the New York Times and Acme Newspictures, later merged into UPI Photos, before striking out on his own as a freelancer.

Harlen Maguire (actor Jude Law) posing a dead body for his camera in Road to Perdition [2]

Harlen Maguire (actor Jude Law) posing a dead body for his camera in Road to Perdition

Weegee’s peak period as a freelance crime photographer extended from the mid-1930s to the postwar years. During that time he took thousands of photographs depicting an already Jewish and multiracial New York nightscape of hoodlums, gangsters, bums, tenement dwellers, and victims of domestic brawls, fires, and auto accidents.

He was particularly famous for almost always being the first news photographer to arrive at the scene. In fact, he earned (or invented) the nickname, Weegee, a phonetic rendering of “Ouija,” due to his seemingly uncanny ability to arrive only minutes after crimes, fires, or other tragedies had been reported to the authorities. The nickname was also useful in disguising his ethnic identity.

 

Girl smiling beside lifeless body of drowned boyfriend at Coney Island, 1940 [3]

Girl smiling beside lifeless body of drowned boyfriend at Coney Island, 1940

He hung around the police station. He said in an interview, “What I did, anybody else can do. 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.” Indeed, there is a photograph from 1938 showing Weegee “Looking Over Police Teletype at Manhattan Police Headquarters.”

As the incredible 1960s example of small-time Dallas hoodlum, strip club owner, and pornographer Jack Ruby, the assassin of Lee Harvey Oswald, attests, even the shadiest Jews are capable of worming their way in anyplace—including clannish police department headquarters.

It has also been suggested that a secret of Weegee’s success was that he possessed the only licensed emergency radio scanner in New York City, giving him an enormous jump on the competition.

But these explanations seem a little lame. No doubt the lack of a family, single-minded focus on his job, and choosing to work at night did have a lot to do with his success. Still, the tabloid business was fiercely competitive, with plenty of photojournalists prowling the streets with access to essentially the same information Weegee had.

So perhaps part of Weegee’s success was attributable to something else. He referred to himself as the “staff photographer to Murder Inc.,” [4] the Jewish assassination outfit. The source says that he made a point of cozying up to everyone from Jewish gangster Bugsy Siegel to Italian mobster Lucky Luciano. The implication is that sometimes Weegee, like Bob Hope’s Walter Winchell-like radio announcer in the 1941 film comedy Ghost Breakers, had advance knowledge about planned hits.

If so, Weegee was a little more like Perdition‘s Harlen Maguire than he is usually painted as being.

uncaptioned-2 bodies from above [5]

Weegee’s pictures were taken with basic press photographer equipment: a cumbersome, 4 x 5 inch Speed Graphic camera preset at f/16 and 1/200 of a second, with flashbulbs and a set focus distance of ten feet. It was the unusually large negatives accommodated by this camera that gave the resulting photographs their exceptionally fine-grained, realistic texture.

Weegee developed his pictures in his apartment (not, as is written, on the spot in a makeshift darkroom in the trunk of his car), and before sending them off to the newspapers rubber-stamped the backs with his own self-promoting, circular logo: “Credit photo by Weegee the famous.”

Speed Graphic [6]

In the 1940s Weegee was employed by the extreme Left-wing New York newspaper PM, where much of his work was published.

Being a Jew, he was naturally anti-white. His most famous photo, “The Critic,” which continues to delight Jews to this day, was staged by him in order to publicly humiliate two philanthropic white society women on the opening night of the Metropolitan Opera in 1943. He lied that it was spontaneous—and that wasn’t the only “real” photo he faked. (Photo and background here. [7])

Another of his photos in the same vein, “Hopper’s Topper [8],” a snide depiction of conservative anti-Communist columnist Hedda Hopper showing lipstick on her teeth, also delights Jews.

Since Jews today constitute the wealthy and powerful, whites and others should legitimately be able to treat them with the same irreverence. But, oh, no . . . that would be anti-Semitic.

From the mid-1930s to 1947 Weegee lived in a single room at 5 Centre Market Place in Lower Manhattan, a street of dingy tenements inhabited by writers, poets, and artists. (Picture of Weegee at home. [9])

The general aura of seaminess surrounding the man is reinforced by his later, non-crime scene photographs.

A favorite subject was scantily-clad, often bare-breasted white strippers. The resulting images are usually only moderately erotic at best—women with imperfect bodies captured in their native, seedy environment of filthy, exploitative strip joints.

Two years before his death, the photographer starred as himself in a bottom-of-the-barrel, low budget skin flick, The Imp-Probable Mr. Wee Gee [10] (1966). It was made by independent filmmaker Sherman Price, who produced a handful of nudie films in the 1960s and must certainly have been Jewish. The narrator’s voice is not really Weegee’s, though it purports to be.

Far, far superior is another film inspired by his work, the realistic mainstream crime story The Naked City (1948), shot on location on the streets of New York and named after his first book of photographs. Virtually everyone involved in its production was Jewish, including Communists Jules Dassin, the director, and co-screenwriter Albert Maltz, later a member of the Hollywood Ten. The film won Oscars for cinematography and editing.

Weegee’s body of work, despite its unique stamp and compelling imagery, does suggest a somewhat sleazy, twisted sensibility, not wholly unlike Maguire’s in Perdition.

It isn’t, however, as distasteful as the work of one of his partisans, Jewish department store heiress and photographer Diane Arbus, the sister of US Poet Laureate Howard Nemerov, despite Weegee’s parallel, though much earlier, fascination with transvestites, homosexuals, lesbians, dwarfs, and non-whites.

Ruth Fagin Bodenheim's body ready for coffin after she and her husband, Jewish poet Maxwell Bodenheim, were murdered in a seedy flophouse by dishwasher Harold Weinberg in 1954 [11]

Ruth Fagin Bodenheim’s body ready for coffin after she and her husband, Jewish poet Maxwell Bodenheim, were murdered in a seedy flophouse by dishwasher Harold Weinberg in 1954

After developing diabetes in 1957, Weegee moved in with a white Quaker social worker named Wilma Wilcox, who cared for him thereafter.

Artistically, he lost his way in his later years, experimenting with “art” photographs, photo distortions, and film.

The Imp-Probable Mr. Wee Gee, in conjunction with Weegee’s later work, is quite revealing about how essentially lowbrow the man was, despite his tremendous raw talent.

Photographic Sensibility

Photography, an astonishing invention of the white mind, has a deeply mysterious quality about it.

Honestly presented photographs are windows into the past, into other worlds, realistically capturing and preserving every visual detail as no other medium save film can. Film, of course, is an extension of photography.

While such photographic images are true, they are nonetheless powerfully shaped by the sensibility of the photographer wielding the camera.

I can’t help, for example, but compare the images of Weegee or Diane Arbus with those created by my grandfather, a commercial photographer who died before I was born.

To select an example at random, he was hired to shoot a Swedish Lutheran congregation on the flat, rural Upper Midwest prairie. In the large, sharply-detailed photo made on that long ago Sunday, the entire congregation—men, women, and children, each individual standing motionless—spills from the doorway of the wooden church like water, narrow at the door, spreading outward, fan-like, down the steps and across the wide lawn. You can even make out the individual faces of those long-dead Swedes.

I could have chosen any photo he took, but that one sprang to mind.

Though each approach is valid in its own way, the contrasting images represent not just externally and geographically different worlds, but starkly different interior mental landscapes as well—differences not only individual, but racial and ethnic in character.

Prisoner in gas chamber moments before death. Incongruously, his black hood bears the logo of Westinghouse Electric [12]

Prisoner in gas chamber moments before death. Incongruously, his black hood bears the logo of Westinghouse Electric

The photographers who shot them perceived the world in radically different and ultimately irreconcilable ways. Even Matthew Brady’s grim Civil War photographs have a different feel to them than do the works of Weegee or Diane Arbus.