Navigation – Plan du site

Weegee’s City Secrets

Alan TRACHTENBERG

Résumés

En tant que photographe indépendant de meurtres, d’accidents, d’incendies, mais aussi de moments de loisirs dans la ville — de scènes de violence et de plaisir — Weegee travaillait essentiellement la nuit et utilisait un flash puissant associé à son appareil-photo de presse. Ses « secrets pour réaliser des photographies avec un flash » consistent à donner des conseils pratiques et techniques pour débutants. Mais au cœur de la rhétorique de ses « secrets » se trouvent des réflexions subtiles et convaincantes révélant la relation entre la lumière et l’obscurité, et plus particulièrement la manière dont la lumière du flash permet de rendre visible l’obscurité. Dans le récit de Weegee, le flash confère à la photographie le pouvoir d’écrire — d’écrire avec la lumière, un mode de représentation singulièrement approprié pour enregistrer des instants de vie dans les rues nocturnes de la ville.

Haut de page

Texte intégral

Something unknown or unrevealed or that is known only by initiation or revelation; a mystery; chiefly pl., the hidden affairs or workings (of God, Nature, Science, etc.).
OED on “secret”

  • 1  Naked City (1945); Weegee’s People (1946); Naked Hollywood (1953); Weegee’s Secrets of Shooting wi (...)

1In 1953 the self-styled “Weegee the Famous”—celebrated tabloid photographer and author of three previous cloth-bound books—brought out a little paperbound booklet titled Weegee’s Secrets1. These teasing words are printed on the front cover in bold white script against a velvety black ground. In smaller type-face, less flamboyant yet just as brightly white, words below explain that the promised secrets are “of shooting with photoflash”, nothing more apparently esoteric than that. But there is indeed a good deal more. Beneath these words stands a picture, visual correlative of the title, Weegee himself looking less pedagogical than conspiratorial, turning from the depths of blackness into a flash of light.

Fig 1. Weegee’s Secrets of Shooting with Photoflash as Told to Mel Harris.

Fig 1. Weegee’s Secrets of Shooting with Photoflash as Told to Mel Harris.

Weegee (Arthur Fellig) Weegee. Cover of Weegee’s Secrets. Of shooting with Photoflash. New York: Designers 3, 1953 © Weegee/International Center of Photography/Getty Images

2Here is Weegee in his hard-boiled look, snap brim hat and cigar clenched in mouth; his hands hold a flash-gun while his head turns to look at the reader over his right shoulder. There’s something in that look that hints of mystery: the angle of the head, the questioning eyes, the apparent interruption marked by the flash on the figure’s face, hands, and clothing. And most mysterious, bearing on the blazing word “secrets”, is that flashed light itself. What is its source? Where does it come from? Weegee’s own hand-held flashgun is quiet, so to speak, no instantaneous flash of illumination coming from that direction. Instead, it is Weegee who is flashed upon and illuminated in this threshold image of his treatise on “shooting with photoflash”.

3Mystery or secrecy, the source of the flash that brings the arch-illuminator’s face into light marks the first of several paradoxes that makes this little book into an interesting construction by a surprisingly inventive and unpredictable artist. The stark contrast of deepest black and whitest white in the typography and imagery of the front cover reveal the paradoxical lesson of photoflash, that rather than dispel darkness, it makes the dark visible. The flash of light contradictorily produces its own darkness, a penetrating light that charges the surrounding dark with an even darker cast by contrast. The eye responds to the explosive eruption of light by momentary blindness; the world seems lost in the suffusion of brightness. The flash reveals what is there and what is not, simultaneously showing what we cannot see; it defines the limits of vision by disclosing the blackness of black as the medium within which vision occurs.

  • 2  On the important PM phase of Weegee’s career, see Lee and Meyer 39-45 and passim.

4As the cover insinuates, what Weegee’s flash gives us to see includes himself in the act of flashing light into the dark—or having light flashed upon himself. An autobiographical motive and method is never far from the center of Weegee’s work, first as a free-lance crime photographer in the 1930s, then on “roving assignment” for the progressive New York newspaper PM in the early 1940s, and especially in his photo-texts later in the 1940s2. His own bodily presence in the city became a major feature of his work; he is often part of the cast, a character or persona in his own right whether as voyeur or recording angel or circus clown and Juvenalian satirist. Self-portraits register his participation in the city revealed by his flash and captured by his camera. Through the phases of his career from the thirties until the publication of his first book, Naked City (1945) and departure for Hollywood in 1947, his vision of the city developed alongside his emerging vision of himself in varied guises: asleep, at ease, at play (43). By “naked” he meant stripped down, freed from illusion, reduced to the basic emotions of pleasure, pain, and curiosity. His city is a city of spectators, people drawn to the scene of crime by an itch to see, eager to look, to gaze at murdered bodies on the sidewalk and lovers on the grass or coupling amid crowds on the beach at Coney Island, people never tired of watching the passing parade, hoping for a sight of something that rings a bell for them, corresponds to or produces a feeling within. Weegee placed himself among the curious ones, those affected by the eruptive terror or passion of the street. His secret of the flashgun is the holy gift of rapport, finding himself wherever he looked.

  • 3  “Speaking of Pictures: A New York Free Lance Photographs the News” Life, April 12, 1937.

5“Weegee was always busy creating Weegee” wrote his friend, photographer and author Lou Stettner. Born in 1899 as Usher H. Fellig in Lemberg, a largely Jewish city in Galicia, near the Russian border, he immigrated with his family to the Lower East Side of New York at age eleven. Raised there in poverty, he worked at odd jobs including, by 1924, darkroom work for Acme Newspapers, later United Press International; by the 1930s he had become a freelance photographer for newspapers and news agencies. The character “Weegee” emerges in this period, a tough city character who lived alone and worked by night; the rhythms of his life were governed by the police radio in his car and in the single bedroom where he lived across from the central police station. Celebrity followed his success as the photographer usually first on the scene of a murder, a fire, a terrible accident. Weegee was Fellig’s continuing self-creation as man of the streets, Baudelaire’s flâneur with a New York accent: brash, demotic, derisive, satiric, voyeuristic, lewd, vulgar, disrespectful of social boundaries yet shamelessly sentimental. “I love this racket”, he told Life magazine in 1937; “It’s exciting. It’s dangerous. It’s funny. It’s tough. It’s heartbreaking”3.

6Weegee’s Secrets is a practical treatise for beginning photographers; a how-to book, it de-mystifies camera and flash. It also reproduces a good many of Weegee’s pictures, adding to his several published photo-texts. Slight in size and scope, it follows in the trail of his more substantial books. It tells the story of how the flashgun figures in the making of his city vision. A prestidigitator of the flash, Weegee fashioned a way of seeing under cover of night. “Secrets” implies magic but the term also denotes expertise, know-how, tricks of the trade of the professional. To the uninitiated, the photoflash may at first seem forbidding. Weegee will take care of that. He is the seasoned expert, sympathetic with the trials of the beginner and willing to lend a helping hand. He writes in the mode of uncovering and revealing, stripping away misconceptions and fears, getting down to basics. His language is personal, smart, friendly, ironic, hard-boiled. It’s a voice of the city, the tough-minded voice of the street. Would you like to get more life into your “party pictures?” “Walk around, mingle with everybody. When anyone starts to pose, turn away, don’t take their picture…in time they’ll get the point”. Going after fires? Bring along a pair of fireman’s boots, “watch for fire hoses”, and don’t throw your used flash bulbs in the street. “News photography is my meat”, he confides; “I can’t remember a time when I didn’t have my camera by my side, on the prowl for a ‘scoop’ […] My first love is still following (or preceding) the police cars and fire engines” (Weegee 1953, 21).

7One secret he cannot tell is how to get to the scene of a crime or disaster before (or “preceding”) the police and the firemen and other photographers, how to be the first on the scene.

I remember one night I was walking in the heart of Chinatown. When I came to the corner of Pell and Mott Streets, something, I don’t know what, made me stop and photograph the intersection. One minute after I took the photo […] the street blew up. The water pipe broke. There was a terrific explosion […] hundreds of tenement dwellers were driven from their home (Weegee 1953, 43).

8This kind of premonition, he explains, happened so often that people began to ask whether he had a private “Ouijia board”, popular at the time, really a toy but taken to be a “spirit” or “talking board” that, like a crystal ball, revealed the future. His own police radio was as good as a crystal ball, but he still took Weegee as his working name as photographer and as author. The adopted name and his belief in his own extra-sensory powers (how seriously he believed this is open to question) are more evidence of the urban character of his work. With his ever-present camera and flashgun, his prowl car with its police radio, the apparatus he carried for quick processing of exposed film, and a typewriter for quick writing of captions that tied his pictures to specific times, events, and places in the city, Weegee was hyper-attuned to the big city. His street is the locus of the contingent, of comings together and fallings apart, of sudden death and love in unexpected places. By adopting a name evoking psychic powers and secret knowledge of what is about to happen, Weegee places himself at the crux of the city’s self-revelation; he is there when and where the city happens to itself, his presence not a mere witnessing but a catalytic force; he helps make it happen, his camera and flash eliciting what it wishes to record as the “real” of the city. If flash explodes sound and light, the camera captures the agitation by stilling it into an instantaneous image, quiet as a page of print.

  • 4  See Tucker.
  • 5  William McCleery in Weegee 1945, 6.

9For an exhibition at the Photo-League in 1941 Weegee chose the gritty label, “Weegee: Murder is My Business”4. His elemental gift was the ability to partake of the life of the street while recording it; he shows people going about their business while the city erupts around them. His business also includes pleasure: couples necking in the movies and dancing cheek-to-cheek at Sammy’s Bowery Bar. William McCleery writes in the forward to Naked City: “Loving the city, Weegee has been able to live with her in the utmost intimacy”. His New York is a “subjective portrait”5. By the time of the publication of the book Weegee not only had transformed himself from a Lower East Side immigrant kid named Usher to a famed city photographer, a celebrity (the name Weegee was sufficient for instant recognition) but he also rose from an ambulance-chasing crime reporter in harness with the tabloid press to a self-proclaimed artist with a unique style of self-expression. Reportage allowed him to express himself as at one with his subject, the city instant. “For the photographs in this book”, he confessed in the opening chapter of Naked City, “I was on the scene; sometimes drawn there by some power I cannot explain [the untellable secret], and I caught the New Yorkers with their masks off […] not afraid to laugh, cry, or make love. What I felt I photographed, laughing and crying with them” (Weegee 1945, 11).

10Weegee’s relation to city is that it is part and parcel of himself, not a subject external to him but an extension of his being. He has no being apart from his immersion in and expressive rapport with the city, with its streets, its public and secret places. Wherever he turns, there he finds himself, not in the sense of mirror images but in the sense of cognate beings, what Whitman called “duplicates of myself” (Whitman 235). To find himself duplicated is to find himself real, achieved as a person. Like Whitman, he finds himself in all the others who comprise his city. It may be surprising to discover an aura of Whitman in Weegee’s writings —he seems at first so unliterary— but the analogy fits. Weegee’s dedication of his book “To You, The People of New York” echoes Whitman’s incorporation of “you” as flush with the author in the making of the poem: “what I assume you shall assume”. Each makes his identity with the readers explicit and literal; each identifies self with city through identity with the other, the “you” of the work.

This is the city and I am one of the citizens,
Whatever interests the rest interests me, politics, wars,
    markets, newspapers, schools,
The mayor and council, banks, tariffs, steamships,
factories, stocks, stores, real estate and personal
estate.
(Whitman 235)

11Weegee too can say about himself, as Whitman did, that he was “of Manhattan the son / Turbulent, fleshy, eating, drinking, and breeding” (Whitman 210). Camera in hand, cigar between his teeth, eyes scouting the darkness, his own fleshy body about to pounce as the flash ignites, Weegee shares the poet’s insatiable appetite for sensation. In his words, “I was on the scene; sometimes drawn there by some power I can’t explain” (Weegee 1945, 11), we can hear echoes of Whitman’s “call in the midst of the crowd, / My own voice, orotund, sweeping and final” (Whitman 235). In such moments of ecstatic displacement the self becomes other to itself; to recognize the call of the other as “my own voice” is to see (and hear) self and city as one, mutually interdependent, bound to each other by ties of kinship (“of Manhattan the son”).

  • 6  Ralph Steiner, “Weegee Lives for His Work and Thinks Before Shooting”, PM, March 9, 1941, 49.

12“When I’m working”, Weegee told fellow photographer Ralph Steiner in 1941, “it’s as though I was in a daze”6. And in the 1953 booklet, he adds: “Thanks to the miracle of the Westinghouse flash bulb, the photographer actually becomes part of the scene he’s photographing, aiming his camera silently and swiftly” (9). In the state of daze or trance, the world Weegee records seems to him a world he makes with camera and flash, “silently and swiftly”. It’s an act in which making and recording become indistinguishable. The sudden violence of the flash effaces any difference, making the artist disappear into the artwork. By illuminating darkness the flash gives it substance. And darkness revealed in turn reveals itself, as on the cover of Weegee’s Secrets, to be the abode of the artist; it’s where Weegee the crime photographer and secret artist resides, mantled in blackness.

13That Weegee understood the darkness of night as the enabling condition of his city work is proclaimed in the photograph double-spread across the title page of Naked City.

Fig. 2. WEEGEE. Naked City. 1945, title page.

Fig. 2. WEEGEE. Naked City. 1945, title page.

Weegee (Arthur Fellig) Weegee. Naked City. New York: Essential Books, 1945, pp. 4-5 © Weegee/International Center of Photography/Getty Images

14At night, in the aura of a flash, his city appears: the Brooklyn Bridge viewed from up the East River, its cables and roadway reaching on the left into lower Manhattan, where three towers rise and a streak of lightning strikes dramatically from high in the sky among them. The streak of lightning—a flash caught in the instant of its appearance which is also its instant of disappearance—resembles writing in an obscure script, as if the secret of the city is inscribed across the night sky. The image not only sets the location—New York, identified by its most famous icons, tower and cables of the bridge, skyscrapers rising as dark silhouettes—but links writing to light, as in the word “photography”. Preceded by two images inside the front cover that show the photographer at the open trunk of his car, where he sits over a typewriter, presumably writing captions and notes toward this very book, the threshold image on the title page prepares for the performance of “photography” that follows, of writing in light alongside writing in type. Repeated inside the back cover, the images showing the photographer photographing himself in the act of writing thus frame the performance of photography within the covers of the book.

Fig 3. WEEGEE. Naked City, end pages.

Fig 3. WEEGEE. Naked City, end pages.

Weegee (Arthur Fellig) Weegee. Naked City. New York: Essential Books, 1945, pp. 2-3 © Weegee/International Center of Photography/Getty Images

15“Now the performer launches his nerve” writes Whitman’s poet in response to the call of his own voice in the midst of the crowd. The opening image in the text proper of Naked City is Weegee’s self-portrait with his 4x5 Speed Graphic press camera with flash gun and bulb.

Fig 4. WEEGEE. Naked City, 10.

Fig 4. WEEGEE. Naked City, 10.

Weegee (Arthur Fellig) Weegee. Naked City. New York: Essential Books, 1945, p. 10 © Weegee/International Center of Photography/Getty Images

16Tightly framed, the picture places the lens of the camera at the vertical center of the page, forming a triangle with the flash bulb and Weegee’s dark eyes looking over the top of the camera and slightly to the left. A lighted cigar droops from the left corner of his tightly-clamped lips. Light from another flash presumably in front of Weegee floods his face and hands as well as metal parts of his black camera with light. He may be standing in front of a mirror but his eyes are focused attentively on something to his left. The bulb attached to his camera has just gone off and continues to go off, a flash caught flashing forever. It is Weegee about to strike, triangulated eyes and lens and flash already sprung into action. It is a picture of an artist and his tools, tensely focused yet also dazed, his eyes fixed, trance-like, on something in the world, which may be the mirrored image of himself. It is a picture that, together with the title page and inside front and back cover images, portrays the work to be performed in the book, the work of seeing by means of flash, lens and eyes, in a way that strips away darkness to disclose the city in its secret nakedness.

17In fact the flash causes darkness to deepen. Weegee’s project proceeds from a paradox: the light that discloses is the same light that obscures with a sense of darkness closing in, as on the cover of Weegee’s Secrets. Revelation is the secret motive of Weegee’s city work, to reveal what lies otherwise hidden from view or disguised by misrepresentation or deceit—male transvestites, for example, playing in costume as sexy women, exposed by his flash and lens. The motive is to strip away all that interferes with our seeing what is real, such as darkness, and, by flooding the world with flashed light, to defeat darkness and deceit on behalf of nakedness, the naked truth of the real. Coming onto the scene from the 30’s and into the 40’s, Weegee represents an American version of “neo-realism”, a photography of fact set in the city. Naked City and Bicycle Thief appear within a year of each other and employ cognate means to tell their quite different stories. De Sica would agree with Weegee, who writes: “To me a photograph is a page from life, and that being the case, it must be real” (Weegee 1945, 12). The term “Page” insinuates once more the rapport of camera and pen, photography and writing, but adds the qualifying insinuation of metaphor, not a literal truth but truth by analogy. “Page” refers to book, an idea from which “photograph” derives force as a kind of writing.

18Metaphors abound in Weegee’s constructions of the putatively real. What is “naked city” but a metaphor that makes the city out as a human body? What is “weegee” itself but a metaphor drawn from Ouji board and psychic forces? And flashgun, perhaps the richest of Weegee’s metaphoric accounts of his work. Is Usher Fellig, aka Weegee, saying perhaps more than he realizes when he says photographs are “real” because they are like pages from a book?

19It may be Weegee’s most closely-guarded secret that not illumination by flash alone but revelation by written metaphor empowers the photograph to ascribe reality; being a “page from life”, “it must be real”. Weegee’s city moment lies in the paradox of darkness stripped away by explosive light only to reveal deeper darkness, the dark of the word wrapped in metaphor. Is it Weegee’s secret finally that what his flash illuminates is not the city street as such but the unvoiced city becoming real through collaboration of eye and pen, of flash, lens, and word? The secret of Weegee’s flash is that it is a gun that stills the world not by killing it but by bringing it to life as metaphor, a page from the book of city instants.

Haut de page

Bibliographie

LEE, Anthony W. and Richard MEYER. Weegee and Naked City, Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008.

TUCKER, Anne. “A History of the Photo League: Its Members Speak”, History of Photography 18, 2, Summer 1994, 174-184.

WEEGEE [FELLIG, Usher (Arthur)]. Naked City. New York: Essential Books, 1945.

WEEGEE [FELLIG, Usher (Arthur)]. Weegee’s People. New York: Essential Books, 1946.

WEEGEE [FELLIG, Usher (Arthur)]. Weegee’s Secrets of Shooting with Photoflash as told to Mel Harris, New York: Designers 3, 1953.

WEEGEE [FELLIG, Usher (Arthur)]. Weegee by Weegee: An Autobiography, New York: Ziff-Davis, 1961.

WEEGEE [FELLIG, Usher (Arthur)] and Mel HARRIS. Naked Hollywood, New York: Pellegrini and Cudahy, 1953.

WHITMAN, Walt. Complete Poetry and Collected Prose. New York: Library of America, 1983.

Haut de page

Notes

1  Naked City (1945); Weegee’s People (1946); Naked Hollywood (1953); Weegee’s Secrets of Shooting with Photoflash as told to Mel Harris (1953); Weegee by Weegee: An Autobiography (1961).

2  On the important PM phase of Weegee’s career, see Lee and Meyer 39-45 and passim.

3  “Speaking of Pictures: A New York Free Lance Photographs the News” Life, April 12, 1937.

4  See Tucker.

5  William McCleery in Weegee 1945, 6.

6  Ralph Steiner, “Weegee Lives for His Work and Thinks Before Shooting”, PM, March 9, 1941, 49.

Haut de page

Table des illustrations

Titre Fig 1. Weegee’s Secrets of Shooting with Photoflash as Told to Mel Harris.
Crédits Weegee (Arthur Fellig) Weegee. Cover of Weegee’s Secrets. Of shooting with Photoflash. New York: Designers 3, 1953 © Weegee/International Center of Photography/Getty Images
URL http://journals.openedition.org/erea/docannexe/image/1168/img-1.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 44k
Titre Fig. 2. WEEGEE. Naked City. 1945, title page.
Crédits Weegee (Arthur Fellig) Weegee. Naked City. New York: Essential Books, 1945, pp. 4-5 © Weegee/International Center of Photography/Getty Images
URL http://journals.openedition.org/erea/docannexe/image/1168/img-2.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 56k
Titre Fig 3. WEEGEE. Naked City, end pages.
Crédits Weegee (Arthur Fellig) Weegee. Naked City. New York: Essential Books, 1945, pp. 2-3 © Weegee/International Center of Photography/Getty Images
URL http://journals.openedition.org/erea/docannexe/image/1168/img-3.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 88k
Titre Fig 4. WEEGEE. Naked City, 10.
Crédits Weegee (Arthur Fellig) Weegee. Naked City. New York: Essential Books, 1945, p. 10 © Weegee/International Center of Photography/Getty Images
URL http://journals.openedition.org/erea/docannexe/image/1168/img-4.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 71k
Haut de page

Pour citer cet article

Référence électronique

Alan TRACHTENBERG, « Weegee’s City Secrets », E-rea [En ligne], 7.2 | 2010, mis en ligne le 24 mars 2010, consulté le 17 décembre 2017. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/erea/1168 ; DOI : 10.4000/erea.1168

Haut de page

Auteur

Alan TRACHTENBERG

Yale University

Haut de page
  • Logo Laboratoire d’Études et de Recherche sur le Monde Anglophone
  • Logo DOAJ - Directory of Open Access Journals
  • OpenEdition Journals