Why It's a Masterpiece

Streets of Broken Lights: Weegee’s New York

A man is strapped to a chair with belts. He is wearing a mask with the Westinghouse Electric logo; through the holes in the mask you can see eyes wide open and lips pressed shut. The caption says — “Man sentenced to death in a gas chamber.” Capitalism and death, crime and punishment. This great and scary photograph was taken by the American photographer Weegee.

Welcome to New York

Usher Fellig, known as Weegee, was born in 1899 in the Ukrainian town of Zolochiv. In 1909, he moved to America together with his family. In his autobiography he later wrote that upon arrival Ellis Island seemed to be the most beautiful place in the world for him. Immigration officers carefully examined them, especially their eyes, and then one kind man gave Arthur a banana and an orange. He didn’t know what to do with them, because he had never seen either before.

What followed was poverty, dirty rooms in shabby flats, and school. At 14, young Arthur started earning his living working with a commercial photographer. There, in a real studio with a glass roof he thought he would be able to learn more about photography. The owner specialized in capturing objects that were too heavy to carry for a traveling salesman: chandeliers, copper beds, pianos, glassware, soft sofas, or tables.

Weegee is an unfailingly New York photographer. He traveled, worked in Hollywood, and has even seen the Soviet Union, but New York remains the main city of his life. This is understandable: in the middle of the previous century no other place on Earth could offer so much material to a young, hungry and curious young man.

New York is a dynamic city, and almost all cinemas, hotels, and police stations photographed by Weegee soon disappeared or changed considerably. The subway stops hanging over the Bowery are long gone, as is the former — modest and cosy — Times Square. The fashion has changed, small shops and bars, music halls and advertising posters, fonts and cars that used to be popular have disappeared in the stream of time. None of it is there anymore. We can still imagine it though and try to reconstruct that world with the help of photographs taken by the omnipresent Weegee. His photographs offer an amazing testimony of the wild 1930s and 1940s in the American metropolis.

He traveled, worked in Hollywood, and has even seen the Soviet Union, but New York remains the main city of his life.

Waiting for Trouble

Weegee’s New York is a dark city, the same as Henry Miller’s New York: “…there comes out of the hideous buildings of New York a music of such sullen despair and bankruptcy as to make the flesh shrivel. No stone was laid upon·another with love or reverence; no street was laid for dance or joy.” (Tropic of Capricorn). The New York that Weegee captured is full of anarchy. Trouble can happen there any minute. There is no stability there and no faith in foundations.

The word ‘noir’ is perhaps the best word to describe the photographer’s style. Weegee ‘travels’ outside the socially acceptable norms, to places where ominous fate dominates everyone who is captured by his lens.

At the same time, the city is for Weegee a decoration, a backstage that exists to show us the people, their fates, their passions, and their inglorious end. This makes the great difference between Weegee’s photographs and the generalization that dominates the art of the 1930s through the 1950s. Weegee is always in the middle of things, always a witness, always compassionate. He is one of their kind. He used to say that a photographer knows they are doing things right when they feel a connection between themselves and the people they photograph, when they laugh and cry together with them.

The Poor and the Criminals

A human is in the center of Weegee’s world. What kind of human though? It is not the Ubermensch, the family man, the father or the hero glorified by the 20th century. Looking at Weegee’s photographs, writer Luc Sante notes that while a modern viewer may be surprised by the fact that in the middle of the previous century men of all social classes wore suits and neckties and women of all classes wore dresses, stockings, and hats, it was always possible to identify the working class. They were the ones showing real emotions. In the sea of faces photographed in the street, the rich are reserved and passive, while the poor who have no reason to hide their feelings are actively reacting to what they are seeing, and each of their faces is a clear and readable text.

Edward Kosner beautifully described Weegee’s characters: “Weegee’s people are generally funny-looking and badly dressed. Many of them are murdered—the blood pooling around their heads, some with their ankles oddly crossed as if they are taking a nap in the gutter. Their cars are wrecked, their tenements gutted by fire, their loved ones sobbing in the streets. Even their pets look morose. The rare happy ones are celebrating Hitler’s defeat or stampeding through the lobby of the Roxy Theatre in Times Square to score seats for Jimmy Dorsey’s big-band show.”

So, Weegee’s character is a little man who commited a crime or got in trouble. He said that the future of the criminals he captured alive was only a matter of time. Soon there was a moment when he captured them dead lying in a pool of blood. And he tried to turn their final photo into art.

Gentleman Tramp

Weegee’s trip to the dark side of life lasted for several decades. However, he took his most famous photographs for the press between the late 1930s and early 1950s. He continued to work and many of the photographs he took late in his career are successful, but the world has changed. Lower Manhattan and Hollywood boheme were not his natural habitat, although his Hollywood series are very beautiful. The magical union of the master, the viewer and the subject changed considerably in the new world of the 1950s.

Judging by his self-portraits, Weegee is mysterious and always slipping away from the viewer as an adult child with sad eyes. He said of himself that he was a gentleman tramp: always rumpled, casually dressed, he spent sleepless nights waiting for the moment to take the main photograph of the previous day to the press.

Weegee said that when he photographed a burning building he forgot about the building and started looking for people, because a woman standing by the fire engine and crying is always more interesting than the fire itself.

A woman standing by the fire engine and crying is always more interesting than the fire itself.

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