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Crime Photographer Rules Streets of New York

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When I first became a newspaperman (nothing so lofty as "journalist") 40 years ago next month, it was at the end of an era when papers carried more stories about people than about government, a few reporters still carried guns and many toted pocket-size half-pints of whiskey.

The human condition and its frailties, frequently manifested in violence, were the stuff of an expected good read, and cop reporters' names such as Joe Morang, Ed Rooney, Walter Spirko and the inimitable John Danovich were as significant to readers as George Will supposedly is today.

And back then, the photog (as we called them) reigned supreme. Some papers carried entire pages devoted to just the interesting pictures of the day.

No one reigned more supreme than the legendary, rumpled, unshaven, cigar-smoking, fedora-wearing New York crime and street photographer (as opposed to "paparazzo" or "photojournalist") called Weegee.

"There was no one like him," said Judy Keller, curator of "Scene of the Crime: Photo by Weegee," an exhibition of some of Weegee's best work that just opened at Los Angeles' Getty Museum.

Born Usher Fettig in Austria in 1899, he became Arthur Fettig when his Jewish immigrant family settled in New York's Lower East Side neighborhood in 1910.

The name Weegee derived from "Ouija," the future-telling board craze of the time, bestowed upon him because of his extraordinary ability to get to the scene of a good picture almost before it happened.

Receiving a minimal education and working at such menial jobs as busboy and candy mixer, he was a self-taught lensman, after becoming a darkroom assistant at The New York Times and, later, a wire service. He began inching his way to international fame when he turned freelancer in the early 1930s.

By 1937, he was already the subject of a profile in Life magazine.

He did not become famous (like Alfred Stieglitz) because of artistic images, glamorous fashion shots and celebrity portraits (Irving Penn) or provocative psychological studies (Diane Arbus, though she was influenced by his work).

Weegee shot true life and true death. Living in a ratty little one-room office apartment across the street from New York police headquarters, he worked the night.

His crime pictures are unforgettable. His classic 1941 shot for the New York newspaper PM of hood Anthony Esposito, flanked by two police detectives and badly roughed up, is titled: "Cop Killer."

Two gamblers arrested in the 1945 Brooklyn College basketball scandal clumsily cover their faces in a portrait of humiliation and shame that's captioned "Arrested for Bribing Basketball Players."

The dead are sprawled as they died. In "Off Duty Cop Does Duty, Kills Gunman Who Tries Stickup," hood Andrew Izzo lies facedown on a Bowery sidewalk, his pistol a few feet away, out of reach for good.

According to Keller, Weegee also liked pictures of the spectators drawn to scenes of crime and disaster. In a 1941 photo captioned "Their First Murder," junior high students and their teacher from a Brooklyn public school look toward the camera and the unseen victim with every imaginable expression, including grins.

"His pictures were part of the noir' movement of the period," Keller said. "They're framed by the night, and they're very stark images. They're black and white. They are also very definitelystill' photographs, not frames from moving pictures or the digital pictures of today, which are in color and tend to be taken in series. In the days of the Speed Graphic camera and flashbulbs, you had only one shot."

But Weegee always knew what was the right picture, and where to be to get it. Sometimes, it was at the opening night of the opera. He had an uncanny ability to see through pomp and artifice. Another classic in this show is "The Critic" (1943), in which Weegee captures two very grandes dames - a Mrs. George Kavanagh and a Lady Deceis - as they enter New York's Metropolitan Opera looking at what they must assume is their most befurred and bejeweled regal, but looking actually - as Weegee sees through all that - patently ridiculous.

The photographer is not alone in his judgment. A third lady, decidedly ungrand and doubtless just come from a cheap saloon, stands to the side and observes her supposed betters with barely concealed and restrained risibility and scorn. Indeed, she appears about to burst into a loud guffaw.

Weegee, as all freelancers must, did shoot celebrities. There's one in here of Stieglitz, sitting restfully on a bed, and Marilyn Monroe, a vision in sequins and decolletage, riding a circus elephant. But the former is strangely blank, imparting little of what was an extremely intense personality. The latter is superficial. Hardly true Weegee at all.

True Weegee was his overhead snap of a tenement dweller - a portly man wearing only his undershorts - sleeping, or trying to, on a bed pushed up against a window. Before air conditioning became common, upward of 35,000 people a night used to sleep in New York's Central Park during the summer heat. Here we understand why, and much else.

He took happier, even happy pictures, especially in Greenwich Village, his version of Paris. He shot marvelous pictures of couples kissing. They are not exhibitionists, merely young, or in love. Weegee, at heart, is a voyeur.

I asked Keller if he could be compared with Walker Evans.

"Not really," she said. "Evans always approached his work in the belief that he was an artist. Weegee didn't realize he was an artist until late in life, after he had become famous."

She said that unfortunately prompted him to attempt techniques more befitting an artist, such as distorting photographic images in the darkroom process, a la Man Ray.

Better the very real faces of "Their First Murder."


(c) 2005, Chicago Tribune. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service.

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