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The Original Nightcrawler

Words:

Edd Norval
September 25, 2018

"I didn't wait until someone gave me a job or something, I went and created a job for myself... What I did, anyone else can do." This sounds like the words of a TED talking motivational speaker that loves to 'empower people'. It's not though. It's the words of Arthur Fellig, better known as Weegee - the man who documented America's darkest hours.

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Before social media, we weren't 'always on' and perpetually stimulated, or at least the majority of the world wasn't - unless you were Weegee. Using a police radio to intercept calls around his adopted home of New York, the Ukrainian immigrant worked relentlessly to carve out a place for himself in a society that was alien to him.


His car, more than America, was his home. He'd wait endlessly on the right calls coming through. It had to be right, had to sell, had to be grisly enough to tell a story that people would part their hard-earned money for. He was a freelance photographer - the first of his kind.


This is a commonplace title now, but it was nothing like him. His audience and inroads weren't democratic, rather they were worn through a gritty resolve and iron stomach lining.


Instead of competing with other tech-savvy millenials, he was up against the police, racing them to their own case. If he got there first, he'd catch a virgin accident, untouched by police cordons. It was raw drama, unscripted and unrehearsed. Wide-eyes burst open with terror, screaming parents of dead children and sweating faces of the onlookers to a furious fire were just some of the subjects of his images.

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Witness to the aftermath of some of the most gruesome crimes committed in New York during his active period, he apparently gained his nickname Weegee from the Ouija board - for his prescient ability to make it to the crime-scene before anyone else. He was a small man, impeccably attired, although often dishevelled. His presence was like death incarnate. His looming silhouette would often tell the police where the crime was and also that once again, they'd been beaten to it.


Money wasn't easy to come by, unless you wanted to do the kinds of jobs that he didn't. A born hustler, his heavily-lit images were splattered over newspapers and are now regarded as art. Weegee's sensitivity to composition gave his images a subconsciously magnetic appeal on the front-page of the nation's most important papers. He was the first street photographer, the grandfather of gore. He was the original Nightcrawler.


The successful film starring Jake Gyllenhaal as the lead, is a morbid look at the lifestyle and psychological implications behind a life on the frontline of documenting similarly tragic circumstances. It delves into the obsession, the lawlessness and the questionable ethics behind the job. These are all issues that Weegee faced unrelenting. He was a maverick, a true visionary. There was nothing, and from that he created an industry.

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"If it bleeds, it leads."


This mantra dictated the direction Weegee's car would race through the deserted street-lit blocks of New York. Like a bloodhound with a radio transmitter for a nose, he'd park or prowl until the words his ears had become attuned to hearing broke the static of the radio. As he eased his foot off of the clutch, he'd take off into the dimness of the night, in search of his theatre of horror.


One could reasonably question the occupation's moral rectitude, but not the man's. It might seem paradoxical to give him a pass but not extend the courtesy to the career he created. However, it is anything but. There are very few jobs that, when probed, stand up to the rigours of our idealised morality. Certainly, even a bank clerk represents an institution that is happy to force people into compromising and even fatal situations. Weegee didn't represent anyone or anything - he was a documenter and one of the best at that.


Even though many of his subjects were dead at the point of being photographed (some images were tragic scenes, not necessarily with a visible loss of life), he managed to retain a deep humanity in his work. So human in fact that they could be hard to look at. Death, it is well-known, is an inevitability that we all try to shirk thinking of. Weegee wouldn't let that happen. He reminded us that it was coming and that it could occur in a myriad of ways. We are simply flesh, muscle, nerves and bone. Of this fact, we couldn't escape.

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Macabre figures have always managed to enthral the imagination of modern America. Likewise, these enterprising success stories resonate with the old frontier spirit that is intrinsically linked to American society. Thrown in the fact that he's an immigrant and you've got an archetypal hero of the American Dream - although his story reads out more like a nightmare.


Weegee has influenced the photography world greatly, stressing the importance not only of how you shoot it, but what you shoot. It was as much about technique as heart. The composition was always at the forefront of his mind. Naturally, the stuff that made the front pages of newspapers like the New York Post, Daily News and Herald Tribune was as much about capturing attention as telling a story, similar to the clickbait that we see now. It had to be quick, going from incident to print overnight. When driving around in the evening, for more personal projects, he'd spend months, or even years, looking for the right shot.


Drunkards passed-out on the streets of the city was commonplace. People always pointed him in their direction, but it didn't excite him - it was too simple, too obvious. Instead he'd drive around alone and try to discover what he was looking for as it came, which it inevitably did. Two years after the search began, he fond a sleeping man under an undertakers sign. He has found his picture and with it came the title - Dead Drunk. It was the perfect fit for his dark humour.


A huge influence on Stanley Kubrick, Weegee used bright flash to make the backdrop appear even darker, bringing into stark focus the protagonists of his images. Kubrick employed this for his boxing series of short-films - granting the visceral and violent nature of the sport to come to the fore. It was his ability to make subjects, even dead ones, seem so achingly and painfully alive that captured Kubrick's attention.


If there is any legacy that Weegee has left behind it is that of having a vision and pursuing it ruthlessly. He came up with the idea for a job and then turned it into an in-demand career. From there, he had his ideas about how best to capture the frailty and mortal details of life. Again, he managed just that. His resolve to do things his way, whilst adhering to his own values and standards, meant that his unwavering vision of America is still being kept alive today, long after his own death in 1968.

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