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Beyond Murder and Mayhem: The Lighter Side of Weegee

The great photographer Weegee is best-known for chronicling New York at its most gruesome. Here, his biographer, Chris Bonanos, offers insights into the master's playful side.

Arthur Fellig, the photographer better known as Weegee, is best-known for his photographs of late-night New York mayhem. Murders and fires and car crashes were his specialty, and, in his own words, "crime was my oyster." But Weegee could also make great images of scenes that weren't so grim — often injecting humor into unlikely places — and he had a gentle and generous touch, especially, with working-class city dwellers. The playful side of Weegee is as significant a body of work as his crime scenes — and during the four years I spent writing his biography, "Flash: The Making of Weegee the Famous," I came to believe that many of his more lighthearted pictures of his fellow New Yorkers, while not his most famous, are some of his best. In them, I recognize my city and my neighbors, even at 70 years’ remove.

Stolen Kiss Weegee(Arthur Fellig)/International Center of Photography/Getty Images Stolen Kiss Weegee was fond of playing around with photographic gear and gimmicks, and in the early 1940s he began shooting with infrared (IR) film and flashes, which recorded images in nearly pitch-darkness. He first used IR film during the blackout drills of World War II, but eventually he hit on the idea of going into darkened movie theaters and photographing couples as they made out. They're incredibly voyeuristic pictures, made on the sly. This one's from a little later, in 1953, and was (unlike most of the others) posed. Weegee had a magazine assignment and he hadn't caught a necking couple in time, so he asked a couple of friends, Al Levin and his girlfriend Joan Loew, to help him out. The two of them got married a few months later, and when I interviewed Joan in 2017, she recalled the movie-theater photo shoot with affection, although she couldn’t remember which theater it had been. Weegee photographed the Levins’ wedding, too. Face Time Bettmann/Bettmann Archive Face Time Over and over during his career, Weegee photographed people as they slept. It makes sense: He worked nights, and New York was mostly in bed. Or, in the case of this image made on 42nd Street near Times Square, in the front window of a bank. I love it because it takes a moment before you see the sleeping guy's face. But also, as a formal photograph, it's cleverly composed. Everything is rectilinear, all hard edges, except for the two round white faces, of man and clock. And because those two things catch your eye, you're also instantly aware that it's 3:30 in the morning. Where's Weegee? Weegee(Arthur Fellig)/International Center of Photography/Getty Images Where's Weegee? Weegee learned early on that "editors demand people in pictures," and frequently inserted himself into his hard-news scenes, as a bystander, looking or pointing at the picture's focal point to add emphasis. (He would put his camera on a tripod and trip the shutter with a long cable.) Once he got famous, he'd insert himself into less-gruesome photos on a lark. This one was made in the storeroom of a wax museum in Los Angeles around 1950, and the photographer's head — bottom row, with cigar — is the only one that's flesh and blood. Another Day at the Beach Weegee(Arthur Fellig)/International Center of Photography/Getty Images Another Day at the Beach Every summer, Weegee would go to Coney Island, looking to make and sell a few hot-weather pictures. This one, made in July 1940, is probably his most famous, and it's breathtaking: a Sunday afternoon on the beach when nearly a million people arrived, mostly by subway, to get some (very slight) relief from their overheated apartments. One of the most exciting moments in my research for this book was when I got in touch with the Kolea family, who can be seen in the front row. (Jim Kolea, one of the siblings, had reached out to the International Center of Photography, which inherited Weegee’s photos.) The kids remember their day at the beach very well, because their baby brother was born that very weekend. Sew What? Weegee(Arthur Fellig)/International Center of Photography/Getty Images Sew What? Another Coney Island moment, this one from 1941. It’s a photo that really exhibits Weegee’s sense of humor. His own caption for the picture brought up the same question I had when I first saw the photo: "Who on earth brings a needle and thread to the beach?" Then again, they needed one and had it, so maybe the joke's on us. I have a special connection to Weegee’s Coney Island pictures: My grandparents’ business was a frozen-custard stand on the boardwalk, and my father grew up in the store, stacking cones and selling ice cream. He was almost surely there on this day, a short walk away from Weegee’s camera. Going ... Weegee(Arthur Fellig)/International Center of Photography/Getty Images Going ... When Frank Sinatra played the Paramount in November 1944, he was already famous for making teenage girls swoon. Going ... Weegee(Arthur Fellig)/International Center of Photography/Getty Images Going ... Weegee wanted to catch one of them in the act, and zeroed in on a likely candidate who, he said, seemed to be particularly lost in the music. Gone ... Weegee(Arthur Fellig)/International Center of Photography/Getty Images Gone ... He shot about eight or 10 frames, and in the final one, caught her as she dreamily conked out. It's a tribute to Weegee's well-honed sense of how to catch a moment, but also to his ability to turn that moment into a narrative. Hole-y Man Weegee(Arthur Fellig)/International Center of Photography/Getty Images Hole-y Man A favorite of mine from about 1940: Max the bagel baker, making a delivery just as dawn begins to break. Could there be a New Yorkier scene? And Weegee, himself an Eastern European Jewish immigrant, knew from a bagel. Far Out Weegee(Arthur Fellig)/International Center of Photography/Getty Images Far Out Ridiculous though it is, I have always liked this picture — maybe because it’s such an outlier for Weegee. The models appear to have been doing a publicity event for a Greenwich Village jeweler named Sam Kramer, who made biomorphic pieces containing of glass eyes and similar far-out materials. Undated, but probably from the late 1950s. Coffee Time Weegee(Arthur Fellig)/International Center of Photography/Getty Images Coffee Time Even an exhausted fireman could provide Weegee with a lighthearted urban moment. Where There's Smoke Weegee(Arthur Fellig)/International Center of Photography/Getty Images Where There's Smoke How can a photo of a burning building be endearing? On a Saturday night in December 1943, a building at Dover and Water Streets in New York caught fire and inadvertently captioned itself. Weegee's photograph is formally beautiful, as the firemen's spotlights and his own flashbulbs turn the smoke and steam into a halo. The sign, of course, provides the focal point and punch line. The Hygrade billboard on the roof is misleading: The building housed a company called Ameko, which made bouillon cubes, and "SIMPLY ADD BOILING WATER" refers not to hot dogs but to soup. I own an original print of this one, and the picture still makes me smile every time I see it.

Chris Bonanos' biography of Weegee, "Flash: The Making of Weegee the Famous," is published by Henry Holt.

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