Balcony Seats at a Murder
Their First Murder
Crowd at Coney Island. Temperature 89 degrees… They came early, and stayed late”
“Ermine-wrapped Patron Caught in Gambling Den”
Script by Dylan Penn
D: I’m Dylan Penn
A: And I’m Austin Tamaddon
D: Welcome to New York in the 40s’s special edition podcast. And today, we are going to look at some interesting stuff.
A: What stuff?
D: Okay, the topic is Weegee The Famous.
A: Who’s Weegee and why is he famous?
D: What’s with you and questions today?
A: What’s with you and vague statements?
D: Okay, let’s take it from the top. Today, we are going to look at the photographer “Weegee the Famous.” Weegee’s photographs represent the changing culture of New York in the 1940s. Many of his photographs include aspects class in them. His sensitivity to class shows the importance of class at the time and the ways in which New York was economically segregated, but also becoming more integrated. His photographs capture a rebirth of New York society where class lines are being broken down.
A: Got it. So let’s start with whom Weegee is because I didn’t know about him until you brought it up as a podcast topic.
D: Good call. First, Weegee’s name isn’t really Weegee. It’s actually Arthur Fellig. And Arthur Fellig’s original name is Usher Fellig. Usher was born in 1899 in Zlothev, Austria-Hungary.
A: Which is in modern-day Ukraine.
D: He lived there until he was 10 and then immigrated to the United States. His father immigrated a few years earlier and scraped together the money for the trip. Once they had enough money, his mother, three brothers and he all packed up and left for Ellis Island. It was at Ellis Island where Usher with a U was Anglicized to Arthur with an A.[i] They met up with Arthur’s father, Bernard Fellig, and went to live on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. He went to school, dropped out of school, did some odd jobs but landed a gig doing photography. He found photography to be his calling.
A: Isn’t that romanticizing it a bit?
D: What are you getting at?
A: Well, he didn’t follow the immigrant pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps American dream story.
A: He hated structure and was financially driven through a lot of his work.
D: Keep going.
A: In his autobiography he tells us that at his first job “The big star—“
D: Give us your best Weegee impression.
A: That’s ridiculous.
D: Do it for the listeners. Immerse them in the story. Differentiate between our voices and his.
A: “The big star of the studio was the camera operator. He wore a bow tie and received twenty-five dollars a week, big money in those days. After I had been there about two years, he left, and I began to do his work. My salary was raised to seven dollars a week. I worked as a camera operator for a few weeks, and then said to the boss, “Look, my work is just as good as the other guy’s, if not better. I should get at least twelve dollars and fifty cents a week.” He said: “No! Take it or leave it!” I told him where he could shove his job, and quit.”[ii] See, he’s financially driven.
D: He’s embracing the American way.
A: I can’t tell if that’s facetious or not.
D: Little column A, little column B.
A: This continues at his job at Acme Newspictures.
D: What does?
D: Oh, right.
A: After some odd jobs and periods of homelessness, Weegee landed a job at Acme Newspictures, which later became United Press International Photos[iii]. He stayed in boarding houses and went to whorehouses while developing photographs for Acme and moving up the ranks to become one of their leading photographers.
D: His time at Acme also gave him the name Weegee. He would develop negatives of photographs on his way back from events so his photographs would always come in first. In his autobiography he recollects, “I outdid myself at one World Series baseball game. I waited on the subway platform at the Yankee Stadium. After the first home run, I grabbed the holder from the messenger and jumped into the first subway train. I got into an empty motorman’s booth (each subway car has a motorman’s booth), locked myself in, lit a cigar, and developed the plate, using my shirt for a towel.”[iv] Because he got his photos in first, people thought he was psychic. The Ouija Board was popular at the time so he adapted the spelling from O-U-I-J-A to W-E-E-G-E-E.
A: And then he quit working at Acme.
A: Well, this follows an anti-authoritarian trend in his life. He didn’t like being told what to do so he becomes a freelance photographer. But it marks a bigger change. Being freelance means he had to sell photos that would go for a high price. He became a crime photographer.
A: He had to sell photos about murders, arrests, and fires in order to make a living.
D: So why was he better than everyone else?
A: The first answer is that he was just faster than other people at reaching the crime scene. He rented a room near police headquarters and got a license for two police scanners: one for his room, and the other for his car.[v] And he set up a darkroom in his trunk so he could develop photos on the scene and drive them over to the newspapers. More importantly though, he took photos of the people, not just the action.
A: Dylan, fill us in.
D: Weegee’s photographs include the people around the scene, not just the scene. This is what makes the photographs great. He shows a human truth other photographers of the time didn’t address. Here’s what Weegee has to say about it. “I arrived in the heart of Little Italy 10 Prince Street. Here’s a guy had been bumped off in the doorway of a little candy store. This was a nice balmy hot summer’s night. The detectives are all over, but all the five stories of the tenement people around the fire escape. They’re looking having a good time some of the kids are even reading the funny papers and the comics. There was another photographer there. And he made what they call a 10-foot shot. He made a shot of just a guy laying in the doorway. That was it. To me this was drama. This was like a backdrop. I stepped back about a hundred feet. I used flash powder and I got this whole scene. The people on the fire escapes, the body, everything. Of course the title for it was “Balcony seats at a murder.” That picture won me a gold medal, a real genuine diamond. That was it. In other words, I try to humanize the news story. Of course I ran into snags with the dopey editors.”[vi]
D: See, Weegee shows the people of immigrant, lower-class neighborhoods and the daily life they experience. “Balcony Seats at a Murder” is only one of many photographs that show the faces of the viewers.[vii] In fact, many of the photos about murders and fires don’t even have the murder or fire in them. “Their First Murder” (1941) shows young faces looking at murdered body and the title implies that there are more murders to come—that murder is part of their neighborhood.
A: Right, critic Luc Sante explains how the pictures of the people watching the murders “are in many ways his truest portraits. Not only are his subjects so absorbed in what they are viewing that they give themselves to the camera, uncomposed and naked, but by virtue of the act of looking they become avatars of the photographer himself. Weegee puts himself in their shoes, and imagines them in his. They are a city of eyes, jointed together by curiosity…”[viii] For Sante, Weegee’s photographs group together New Yorkers. This is particularly true for the working class New Yorkers where these events were taking place.
D: Yet, Weegee’s photographs of murder and fire spectators were not how he gained fame as a populist photographer. Sante explains Weegee’s success as a populist photographer. Sante differentiates between popular art and populist art and reminds us of the definition of populist art, which is art from the people for the people. He is referencing that Weegee came from the working class and takes photos that were published in tabloid directed at the working class. What Sante does not understand is how Weegee appealed to audiences beyond the working class. Weegee’s photographs of Coney Island shows New Yorkers from many different walks of life that gather at a common space for the plain old fun of going to the beach. In Weegee’s Coney Island photographs, such as “Crowd at Coney Island. Temperature 89 degrees… They came early, and stayed late,”(1940) we see thousands of New Yorkers together in one space. Coney Island at the time was not a space reserved for the urban poor. He photographed changes in social dynamics.
A: So what about the upper class?
D: What about them?
A: Well, we covered the lower/working class and the emerging middle/professional class but what about the upper class? The people whose names were in the Social Register.
D: Want to explain what the Social Register is?
A: Let’s do it. The Social Register is a collection of names of people whose families have old money and are considered part of polite society. The New York Social Register was first published in 1886 and to this day keeps the names of the people considered to be the upper crust of society. In the 1930s and 40s this was a big deal.[ix] In fact, Weegee explains the importance of The Social Register to his photographs. “I picked a story that meant something. In other words, names make news. If there’s a fight between a drunken couple on 3rd Avenue or 9th Avenue in Hell’s Kitchen, nobody cares. It’s just a bar room brawl. But if Society has a fight, and the Cadillac on Park Avenue and their names, they’re in The Social Register this makes news and the papers are interested in that.”[x] Weegee looks for criminal activity that brings the upper class down. The papers want to see brawls and crime in the upper class. In “Ermine-wrapped Patron Caught in Gambling Den” a woman dressed in fur is caught doing the same gambling that is done by the working class.
D: But there peaceful ways Weegee photographs social change from the upper class too. In “Intermission,” (1941) Weegee photographs six hats on a rack at the Opera. Four of them are top hats from white-tie attire, but the other two hats are officer’s covers. WWII changed the upper class. Many high-ranking officers were still from the upper class, but the military is more of a meritocracy. Weegee photographed how the class barriers are being broken down by the War.
The Second World War in general broke down differences between class and race too. The photograph “Whose Blood Will Save Him?” (1944) shows how the War was breaking down differences. The tagline of the poster is “Protestant, Catholic, Jew… It’s All AMERICAN Blood.” The government made an effort to galvanize the American people in order to fight a massive war. Weegee is at the perfect time to photograph these changes.
A: And It’s important to realize that Weegee wasn’t just going along for the ride. He was at the right time and place, but he also acted upon the time and place he lived in. Weegee commented on the lives of his subjects. His book Naked City(1945)is a collection of photographs that hit the heart of New York. Weegee was able to find a truth in the lives of New Yorkers.
D: Not everyone was too keen on his invasion though.
A: True. The critic Miles Orvell claims this was an invasion of his subjects. Orvell argues Weegee’s photography is “an unadulterated voyeurism that both enacts and represents the act of looking… Weegee operated as a kind of tour guide to New York, offering the privilege of looking at the bizarre world of urban misfortune and pathos without making any serious action.”[xi] The problem with Orvell though, is that voyeurism in itself is an act. Weegee actively records the world around him and even if he doesn’t call for action, Weegee points out the class changes by finding (to use his word) “the bizarre.” He may not have changed economic differences during his time as a tabloid photographer in New York, but he documented the beginning of economic desegregation.
D: Exactly! Weegee’s fame as an artist comes from his sensitivity to social issues. His understanding of class can be traced back to his working class background. His focus on money throughout his autobiography shows how much he thought about class. He recorded class differences and made a living on capturing those images. A frequent buyer of his images was PM Newspaper.[xii]
A: What’s that?
D: PM was a left-wing New York paper from 1940-1948 founded by Ralph Ingersoll. The paper focused on the War in Europe, including before America’s involvement and was strong for promoting labor issues. Don’t get me wrong, Weegee sold his photos all over town, but he had a special relationship with a paper that didn’t plainly tell the facts. PM sold a story.[xiii]
A: And don’t forget, Weegee was also a member of the New York Photo League. For context, the New York Photo League operated from 1936 to 1951. One of the head founders, Sid Grossman, thought it was necessary to record social issues of the time and used The Photo League as a vehicle for documenting the problems and changes New Yorkers faced. I mean, the League started during the Great Depression.[xiv] Weegee didn’t just sell photos for money. He sold social issues and the readers could relate to what was happening around them
D: Who’s the romantic now?
A: Fair enough, but it was these photos—the ones that examined class differences and social issues—that got him put in the Museum of Modern Art.[xv] His triumph is being able to be a freelance, commercial photographer as well as an artist worthy of international acclaim.
D: And that’s where we should end the show.
D: Well, after that, he moved to Hollywood, took photos of celebrities, then took abstract photos, all of which were poorly received and then died in 1968.[xvi] He helped out on Dr. Strangelove with Stanly Kubrick and they got to know each other, but ultimately, Weegee’s career ended with the end of the 1940s.[xvii] His career was about the people. He couldn’t access the same truth without photographing crime.
A: And that’s the way the cookie crumbles.
D: I guess so.
A: Well on that depressing note, let’s wrap up the show.
D: Good idea. Well folks, this has been a fun look at the 1940s through the lens of Weegee the Famous.
A: Did you really just–?
D: Yes, yes I did. Okay folks that’s our show. I’m Dylan Penn
A: And I’m Austin Tamaddon.
D: And this was New York in the 1940s special edition podcast broadcast. Thank you for tuning in. I’d personally like to thank Austin for taking time out of his day to put up with me.
D: And Professor Sean McCann for actually letting me doing a podcast for the final. I hope all of you had as much as we did.
A: That’s it.
D: That’s it.
[i] Weegee. Weegee By Weegee. Ziff-Davis Pub. Co., New York (1961) 7-8
[ii] Ibid. 16
[iii] Ibid. 25-26
[iv] Ibid. 34
[v] Ibid. 51
[vi] Weegee. “Balcony Seats at a Murder” International Center of Photography (1997) Audio. http://museum.icp.org/museum/collections/special/weegee/ra/balcony.html
[vii] Gonzalez, David. “Weegee’s Killer Decade” The New York Times (Jan. 20, 2012) http://lens.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/01/20/weegees-killer-decade/
[viii] Sante, Luc. “City of Eyes.” In Unknown Weegee, 9. New York: ICP/Steidl, 2006.
[ix] Social Register Association. “About Us” http://www.socialregisteronline.com/
[x] Weegee. “Famous Photographers Tell All – Weegee.” Candid Recordings. Audio. 1958.
[xi] Orvell, Miles. “Weegee’s Voyeurism and the Mastery of Urban Disorder.” American Art Vol. 6, No. 1 (Winter, 1992): 19. Accessed Dec. 7, 2014. http//www.jstor.org
[xii] Starr, Roger. “PM: New York’s Highbrow Tabloid” City Journal (Summer 1993). Accessed Dec. 7. 2014 http://www.city-journal.org/story.php?id=1480
[xiv] Rosenblum, Walter.. “Where Do We Go from Here?” New York Public Library’s Online Exhibition Archive. http://web-static.nypl.org/exhibitions/league/text.html Accessed Dec. 7, 2014
[xv] Christian, Mary. “About this artist; Weegee (Arthur Fellig)” Grove Art Online, Oxford University Press (2009) http://www.moma.org/collection/artist.php?artist_id=1842 Accessed Dec. 7, 2014
[xvi] Dunlap, David W.. “Weegee’s Other Naked City.” The New York Times Dec. 16, 2011. http://lens.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/12/16/weegees-other-naked-city/ Accessed Dec. 7, 2014
[xvii] Robins, Christopher. “Photos: When Weegee Visited the Set of Dr. Strangelove.” The Gothamist July 30, 2012 http://gothamist.com/2012/07/30/photos_when_weegee_visited_the_set.php#photo-1 Accessed Dec. 7, 2013.
- Handy, Ellen. “Picturing New York, the Naked City: Weegee and Urban Photography.” in Weegee’s World, New York: Bulfinch Press/International Center of Photography, 1997.
- Pelizzon, V. Penelope; West, Nancy Martha. “”Good Stories” from the Mean Streets: Weegee and Hard-Boiled Autobiography.” in The Yale Journal of Criticism, Vol. 17, No. 1. (Spring, 2004).
- Ramirez Jasso, Diana. “The aesthetics of concealment: Weegee in the movie theater (1943-1950).” PhD diss., Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 2002
- Baskind, Samantha. “Weegee’s Jewishness.” in History of Photography Vol. 34, No. 1 (Winter, 2010)
- Bright, Brittain. “The Transforming Aesthetic of the Crime Scene Photography: Evidence, News, Fashion, and Art.” in Concentric: Literary and Cultural Studies, Vol. 38, No. 1 (March, 2012).
- Moe, John Frederick, “A Jounalist’s Odyssey: Ralph Ingersoll and the Origins of “PM.”” PhD diss., Indiana University, 1978
- Francisco, Jason. “Teaching Photography as Art” American Art 21.3 (Fall 2007), pp. 19-24 University of Chicago Press
- Hill, Jason Edward. “Artist as Reporter: The “PM” News Picture, 1940—1948.” University of Southern California. 2011. Ann Arbor: ProQuest.