In this exclusive essay, Flash: The Making of Weegee the Famous author Christopher Bonanos explores the world of photographer (and "human Ouija board") Arthur Fellig, presented alongside some of his gritty images of mid-century New York. Flash is an Amazon selection for the best biographies and memoirs of June 2018.
by Christopher Bonanos
They say that members of the media love nothing as much as a good story about the media. I’ve been a magazine editor and writer for more than 25 years, mostly at New York Magazine, and I admit that (for me at least) it’s true. Researching and writing Flash: The Making of Weegee the Famous, the first biography of the press photographer Arthur (Weegee) Fellig, meant that I had to dive deep into New York’s newspaper culture. The work for which Weegee is most famous—black-and-white scenes of urban mayhem, fires, dead gangsters in the street, car wrecks—nearly all was made between the early 1930s and 1946, when he quit newspapering for other kinds of photography.
In 1936, when Weegee’s freelance career really got going, there were nine general-interest daily newspapers in New York City. Five were published in the morning, four more in the afternoon. Each of those was produced in multiple editions, updated every hour or so with fresh news and sports scores, up to six or seven times on a busy day. The afternoon paper is almost an extinct species now, but it was thriving then; the idea was that it covered the morning’s happenings rather than the previous day’s. The final edition hit the streets around 1 or 2 p.m, and was rushed to newsstands so you could buy it to read on the train ride home, or in your easy chair before or after dinner. The afternoon papers were put out of business primarily by the six-o’clock local newscast, and secondarily by the postwar traffic jams that made it impossible for delivery trucks to get to newsstands. (The sole survivor of the four is the New York Post, long since shifted to morning publication.)
Weegee made hundreds of photos at fires, and this one captioned itself, as the sign on the building reading SIMPLY ADD BOILING WATER plays perfectly with the clouds of steam and smoke. The billboard on the roof is misleading, because the boiling water is not intended for frankfurters. The building housed a company that made bouillon cubes.
Weegee shot pictures for all nine papers plus the wire services, but you wouldn’t necessarily know that from his archive. His early freelance career, up through 1940, is spottily documented, because he didn’t keep copies of most of the photographs he sold till later on. Most often his pictures ran anonymously, credited just to “World-Telegram Photo” or “Post Photo,” but every couple of weeks he’d persuade an editor to put his name on his work. And the only way to find those is to turn every page. So I did: five years of the Sun, the Post, and the World-Telegram, all on microfilm at the New York Public Library. (I started reading the Evening Journal, too, but they never credited his pictures, so I gave up after two years’ worth of that one.) Microfilm is slow and clumsy and hard on the eyes, but it has its rewards.
Nothing tells you more about a time and place than what its news consumers craved, and it’s not the big stories that give you the most. The little side features and headline gags—not to mention the ads—deliver a tremendous amount of appreciation for the ways people thought, believed, and interacted with one another. Certain things you know you’ll find, and you certainly do find them: the staggering casual racism, the condescension towards women. Other stories are of a type that we simply don’t bother with anymore, like coverage of prominent people arriving in New York on each day’s ships from Europe. One thing we’d never do today: Whenever a private citizen’s name appears, it’s followed by his home address.
On the night of August 6, 1936, Dominick Didato, a minor bookie who went up against Lucky Luciano's crime organization, was shot down outside a restaurant at 90 Elizabeth Street in New York. Weegee lived three blocks away, so he could be there in minutes. It's not an especially bloody photo: He once said that he tried to make murder victims seem as though they were just "takin' a little nap."
But many things I saw would not at all be unfamiliar to consumers of today’s online news. There are debutantes who get breathless-but-tinged-with-sarcasm coverage, and the stories are not too different from the way we read about the Kardashians. There are countless small news items, each with a snappy and often funny headline, that are each perhaps two paragraphs long, and (if you allow for differences in tone and inclusiveness) they’re quite similar to the in-between items that fill out every news blog on the Web, including the one where I’m a regular contributor, Daily Intelligencer. A couple of years ago year, a cow got loose in Queens County, and DI covered it with funny posts and some video from Twitter. Just a few weeks before, I’d found an item from the old Post about an uncannily similar story: On December 6, 1938, a bull got loose early one morning from a truck in midtown and went tearing up Madison Avenue until a couple of New York cops roped it, as if they were rodeo performers. Weegee got the photo credit on that one.
It’s not exactly Woodward and Bernstein taking down the White House. But most news, frankly, is not. And I must say that, as an editor who sometimes works on breaking news, I felt a real kinship with some of those old tabloid guys. (Yes, they were nearly all guys: There were not a lot of women in a newsroom in 1936.) Weegee would have raced there with the cops, made his picture, then hustled over to the Post’s building on West Street to hit the darkroom before the first-edition deadline around 9 a.m. Then a desk editor would have knocked out a funny little story, put a snappy headline on it, and sent it off to the copy desk. Seventy years later, my colleagues and I basically would have done the same thing, except that the photo would have been transmitted instantly to our screens, and the story could be published in five minutes, without paper and ink and trucks that might get stuck in traffic. No wonder news people love a story about news people: The clatter of the presses may be disappearing, but nothing wakes us up like the hum of a breaking story.
Gladys Macknight and Donald Wightman were boyfriend and girlfriend, two well-off teenagers in Bayonne, New Jersey. On July 31, 1936, they got in an argument with Gladys's mother, and it ended with a hatchet embedded in the mother's head. The teens turned themselves in at the police station a few hours later; Weegee and a New York Post reporter named Leo Katcher jumped in a car and raced out to the police station in Bayonne to get pictures and interviews before anyone else did.
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