A fine-grained close-up of the lensman who lit up New York City, both low-life and high-.
If there was ever a caricature of the old-time newspaper photographer, it is Weegee, born Usher—later Americanized to Arthur—Fellig (1899-1968). A stocky Gotham type down to the rumpled suit and ever present 5-cent stogie, he was the man on the scene with the Speed Graphic and the flaming bulb, throwing harsh noirish light on fires, wrecks, and any number of mob hits. Unlike most caricatures, his work has survived. His pictures of dead gangsters, necking teenagers in movie theaters, kids sleeping on fire escapes, a slovenly woman sneering at fashionable operagoers, distraught victims of a tenement fire, or an impossibly crowded Coney Island are indelible images of American life both before and after World War II. In this continually fascinating biography, New York magazine city editor Bonanos (Instant: The Story of Polaroid, 2012, etc.) presents Weegee as a skilled craftsman who learned that you had to “get punch in your pictures” to beat the competition; that meant angle, framing, and environment. A corpse on the sidewalk was just a fact; getting a city mailbox in the foreground—urging “Mail Early for Delivery Before Christmas”—created a story. Voyeurism was both Weegee’s motivation and subject; he found as much drama in a sudden reaction shot—as in his picture of schoolchildren who have just witnessed a murder—as the event itself. The author makes a strong case for Weegee’s continued relevance: “Things that seemed slight when they were made do not always turn out that way in the long run when thinking people who sweat the details are the ones making them. Weegee was one of those people, and he did just that.”
In this deeply researched (though lightly worn) and compelling portrait, Bonanos captures all sides of an artist in spite of himself.