Archive for September 7th, 2018

07
Sep
18

Photographs: Weegee (Arthur Fellig) (1899-1968) ‘9 crime-scene photographs’ c. 1930s

September 2018

 

Weegee (Arthur Fellig) (1899-1968) 'Untitled [Crime scene]' c. 1930

 

Weegee (Arthur Fellig) (1899-1968)
Untitled [Crime scene]
c. 1930s
Silver gelatin print

 

 

A group of 9 crime-scene photographs from the early part of Weegee’s career c. 1930s.

In 1935, Weegee (Arthur Fellig’s nickname, “a phonetic rendering of Ouija, because of his frequent, seemingly prescient arrivals at scenes only minutes after crimes, fires or other emergencies were reported to authorities”) struck out on his own to become a freelance photographer, selling his “hot off the press” images to the tabloid newspapers. His method was to get there fast, get there first, use his 4×5 Speed Graphic camera preset at f/16 at 1/200 of a second (usually using flashbulbs and a set focus distance of ten feet), develop the photos, sell them and move on to the next spectacle… whether that be a murder, a society happening, or people’s reactions to an event.

What is interesting about these early photographs is what we can deduct about his photographic process and glean from the photographs themselves.

Firstly, the skeletal body (above). We can see that the body is resting on a tray in a boat that is tied to a pier (notice the tensioned rope top right). It has obviously been in the river quite a while because all the flesh has withered from the vine. A piece of metal wire is coiled near the hands, proposing that this person met foul play. The photographer stands on the bank and you can just imagine the conversation. You can imagine Weegee saying to the working men who were in the boat (there must have been two for the lid of the container, top left, is parallel to the body), “Do us a favour, lift the lid for a second.” He only had a second, his camera slanted 45 degrees down looking at the body, and he missed his focus point (or is it deliberate?) … the depth of field low, the focus is on the workers shoes and the skeletal body is out of focus. Does it matter? Not one bit.

Secondly, the lady with the shoe (below). In a seedy tenement house (a run-down and often overcrowded apartment house, especially in a poor section of a large city) we observe how Weegee approaches the body, photographing it from above, from opposing directions, using flash to illuminate the scene. In this case he contextualises the body… in a room, against a cheap vinyl patterned floor covering. A single suitcase sits with open locks on a small trestle table. An old cast iron bed (you know the ones, with metal springs) is framed to the right in front of a heavy iron radiator. In this first photograph the definitive focus is on the body, and its attitude at the point of destruction. The out flung arm, the bend of the knee, the ravaging of the breast. And how it is surrounded by a smashed plate and a discarded shoe.

Next he steps over the body and photographs it from the opposite direction. Here, the focus is not so much on the body, but how the body is placed within the space of the living (and the dead). This was a place of inhabitation, of habit, of cups of tea, of sitting at a table, of having sex in a bed. We note the mouldy walls, the knocked over ornament, the single, bleak standard lamp with trailing cord, the tray for tea, the bare, cheap table and chair to the right, and the bloodied pillow on the floor. This was a place of life, now departed.

Thirdly, and most interestingly in terms of Weegee’s photographic process, is the murder in the storeroom (below). It took me a while to work out what was going on here, and I have created a composite photograph of the three images to explain the photographic sequence.

I believe that Weegee took the central images first, using flash, reasonable depth of field, looking down on the victim. The body of a young man lies crammed into a small space, face down in an unnatural pose, table to the left, boxes at back and shelf to right. The flash has blown out the floorboards and objects to the right, but intensifies the bloodstains on the floor. Weegee has then stepped around the table to photograph the lower portion of the man’s body, one leg resting behind a step ladder, the other leg out of sight to the right of the Du Pont box. The curl of the man’s hand is particularly poignant. As in the second photograph of the women in the apartment, it is the placement of the body in the context of life and death that is so important in this photograph. The space of existence.

Finally, and this is where it gets really interesting, Weegee walks to where the foot of the step ladder must have been in the second photograph. He must have removed the ladder and photographed the foreshortened space, where we can just see the man’s head resting on the floor above the darkness of his jacket. The blue line in the composite photograph shows the opposite ends of this box (in the first and third images), with the table out of the picture to the right in the third photograph. This is fascinating stuff, to understand how Weegee intuitively approached a crime scene, how his eye saw so clearly and quickly what he needed to capture. The essence of a scene revealed to the photographer and the viewer in the blink of an eye. A series of decisive moments captured not on the fly, but in the mind.

Marcus

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These digitally cleaned photographs are published under “fair use” for the purposes of academic research and critical commentary. Please click on the photographs for a larger version of the image.

 

 

Weegee (Arthur Fellig) (1899-1968) 'Untitled [Crime scene]' c. 1930

 

Weegee (Arthur Fellig) (1899-1968)
Untitled [Crime scene]
c. 1930s
Silver gelatin print

 

Weegee (Arthur Fellig) (1899-1968) 'Untitled [Crime scene]' c. 1930

 

Compilation of three Weegee crime scene photographs (see below)

 

Weegee (Arthur Fellig) (1899-1968) 'Untitled [Crime scene]' c. 1930

 

Weegee (Arthur Fellig) (1899-1968)
Untitled [Crime scene]
c. 1930s
Silver gelatin print

 

Weegee (Arthur Fellig) (1899-1968) 'Untitled [Crime scene]' c. 1930

 

Weegee (Arthur Fellig) (1899-1968)
Untitled [Crime scene]
c. 1930s
Silver gelatin print

 

Weegee (Arthur Fellig) (1899-1968) 'Untitled [Crime scene]' c. 1930

 

Weegee (Arthur Fellig) (1899-1968)
Untitled [Crime scene]
c. 1930s
Silver gelatin print

 

Weegee (Arthur Fellig) (1899-1968) 'Untitled [Crime scene]' c. 1930

 

Compilation of two Weegee crime scene photographs (see below)

 

Weegee (Arthur Fellig) (1899-1968) 'Untitled [Crime scene]' c. 1930

 

Weegee (Arthur Fellig) (1899-1968)
Untitled [Crime scene]
c. 1930s
Silver gelatin print

 

Weegee (Arthur Fellig) (1899-1968) 'Untitled [Crime scene]' c. 1930

 

Weegee (Arthur Fellig) (1899-1968)
Untitled [Crime scene]
c. 1930s
Silver gelatin print

 

 

Weegee was born Usher Fellig in Złoczów (now Zolochiv, Ukraine), near Lemberg in Austrian Galicia. His given name was changed to Arthur when he emigrated with his family to New York in 1909. There he took numerous odd jobs, including working as a street photographer of children on his pony and as an assistant to a commercial photographer. In 1924 he was hired as a darkroom technician by Acme Newspictures (later United Press International Photos). He left, however, in 1935 to become a freelance photographer. Describing his beginnings, Weegee stated:

In my particular case I didn’t wait ’til somebody gave me a job or something, I went and created a job for myself – freelance photographer. And what I did, anybody else can do. What I did simply was this: I went down to Manhattan Police Headquarters and for two years I worked without a police card or any kind of credentials. When a story came over a police teletype, I would go to it. The idea was I sold the pictures to the newspapers. And naturally, I picked a story that meant something.

He worked at night and competed with the police to be first at the scene of a crime, selling his photographs to tabloids and photographic agencies. His photographs, centered around Manhattan police headquarters, were soon published by the Herald TribuneWorld-TelegramDaily NewsNew York PostNew York Journal AmericanSun, and others.

In 1957, after developing diabetes, he moved in with Wilma Wilcox, a Quaker social worker whom he had known since the 1940s, and who cared for him and then cared for his work. He traveled extensively in Europe until 1968, working for the Daily Mirror and on a variety of photography, film, lecture, and book projects. On December 26, 1968, Weegee died in New York at the age of 69.

Photographic technique

Most of his notable photographs were taken with very basic press photographer equipment and methods of the era, a 4×5 Speed Graphic camera preset at f/16 at 1/200 of a second, with flashbulbs and a set focus distance of ten feet. He was a self-taught photographer with no formal photographic training. Weegee developed his photographs in a homemade darkroom in the rear of his car. This provided an instantaneous result to his work that emphasised the nature of the tabloid industry and gave the images a “hot off the press” feeling. While Fellig would shoot a variety of subjects and individuals, he also had a sense of what sold best:

Names make news. There’s a fight between a drunken couple on Third Avenue or Ninth Avenue in Hell’s Kitchen, nobody cares. It’s just a barroom brawl. But if society has a fight in a Cadillac on Park Avenue and their names are in the Social Register, this makes news and the papers are interested in that.

Weegee is famously credited for answering “f/8 and be there” when asked about his photographic technique. Whether he actually said that or not, the saying has become standard advice in some photographic circles.

Some of Weegee’s photos, like the juxtaposition of society grandes dames in ermines and tiaras and a glowering street woman at the Metropolitan Opera (The Critic, 1943), were later revealed to have been staged.

Late 1930s to mid-1940s

In 1938, Fellig was the only New York newspaper reporter with a permit to have a portable police-band shortwave radio. He maintained a complete darkroom in the trunk of his car, to expedite getting his free-lance product to the newspapers. Weegee worked mostly at nightclubs; he listened closely to broadcasts and often beat authorities to the scene.

Text from the Wikipedia website

 

Weegee (Arthur Fellig) (1899-1968) 'Untitled [Crime scene]' c. 1930

 

Weegee (Arthur Fellig) (1899-1968)
Untitled [Crime scene]
c. 1930s
Silver gelatin print

 

Weegee (Arthur Fellig) (1899-1968) 'Untitled [Crime scene]' c. 1930

 

Weegee (Arthur Fellig) (1899-1968)
Untitled [Crime scene]
c. 1930s
Silver gelatin print

 

 

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Dr Marcus Bunyan

Dr Marcus Bunyan is an Australian artist and writer. His work explores the boundaries of identity and place. He writes the Art Blart blog which reviews exhibitions in Melbourne, Australia and posts exhibitions from around the world. He has a Dr of Philosophy from RMIT University, Melbourne and is currently studying a Master of Art Curatorship at The University of Melbourne.

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