The Photographer Who Changed the Way We Think About Crime

Slate's Culture Blog
Jan. 23 2012 3:02 PM

Weegee, the Photographer Who Gave Murder Style

Weegee, who dramatically shaped America’s perception of the crime scene, only really started working as a professional photojournalist when he was close to 40. I mention this not only to make all us late starters feel better about ourselves but also because it puts the 100 prints currently on display at the International Center for Photography in New York in perspective. “Murder is My Business,” which opened Friday, focuses on Weegee’s work from 1935-1946, his first decade as a news photographer. (You can get a taste below. Beware: It contains some pretty gruesome stuff.)

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This isn’t to say that Weegee was new to the photo world; he was known as an expert darkroom guy and made money photographing objects for catalogues and taking passport pictures. “But working out in the field was a whole new thing for him,” ICP Chief Curator Brian Wallis explains. “He was dazzled and excited to apply all that knowledge to a new profession that was press photography.”

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And he caught on fast. Looking through his image of curious children, fainting wives, and leering mafiosos in top hats—it’s easy to miss that as he made these pictures, he was still learning the basics of photographing the streets. He quickly jumped past the other news photographers, Wallis explains, because what was a nine-to-five for others was a life for Weegee.

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Weegee lying on bed in his studio, New York, 1941. (© Weegee/International Center of Photography.)

When he was not taking photographs, he was cultivating his sources on both sides of the law. If the chief of police needed someone to photograph his daughter’s birthday party, Weegee was there, Wallis explains. The reward was that he got a police scanner before anyone else. And when he wasn’t hanging out with the cops at the pub, he was laying back with the Jewish mafiosos of Murder, Inc.

Does it seem shocking that this son of a rabbi would spend his time with such a rough crowd? Not really, Wallis explains. Weegee was just another underdog who had grown up poor speaking Yiddish on the Lower East Side. It’s only natural that he admired these Jews who made it big—even if they were gangsters.

“When they finally got gunned down, he would try to respect them, make them look stylish in death,” Ellis says.

And these men rewarded Weegee’s admiration by tipping him off to crimes; he sometimes arrived on scene before the murder or the fire had even been reported. He developed a reputation for having a sort of sixth sense. (This is how he got his name. Born as Usher Fellig, Weegee is a phonetic reference to the the Ouija board.)

What truly differentiated Weegee’s crime photos from other news photographers in that era, though, was not just his timing, but the version of the story he presented. He gave his photos an extra layer, incorporating ironic details like the the baby carriage or the “Keep Your Sidewalk Clean” sign behind the stiffening body. He was as—if not more—interested in people’s reactions than the crimes themselves, and much of his most memorable work involves the shocked and fascinated faces of children and neighbors. These weren’t your typical gory crime-scene photos; these were images people could relate to and talk about with friends.

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“I’m very sensitive and artistic and hate the sight of blood, but I’m spellbound by the mystery of murder,” he was quoted as saying in his New York Times obituary.

Weegee highlighted this mystery in his captions as well. “Killing Over a Glass of Warm Beer” is his title for a photo of a body next to a perplexed dog. Is it OK to make light of murder? Is highlighting absurdity disrespectful if all you’re documenting is the truth?

These questions are now familiar ones for editors. Back then, though, in the the early days of photojournalism, such issues were relatively new. And—as is still the case today—the answer was often, “It depends.” Some tabloids were OK with an uncovered body and a pool of bloody irony. Other newspapers preferred a more vague and elegant allusion to deah (like a chalk outline of a head).

What did make it into the papers undeniably shaped how Americans came to think about crime. Even for those who avoided the tabloids, the images lived on, inspiring the look of gangster movies, comic books, and other interpretations of violence for decades to come. The flash-lit faces, stiff cops, and ironic juxtapositions of death and innocence will feel familiar even if you don’t know Weegee’s name. Weegee took many other kinds of photos throughout his career, but it’s his crime photos that have left the most lasting mark. Looking at them in this new exhibit is like watching America’s visual imagination of homicide take shape.

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