May 19 2016

Weegee’s Bowery

by Billy Kung

The Bowery, a neighborhood in the southern part of Manhattan Island, was known as New York City’s “Skid Row” from 1940s through the 1970s. It was favored by derelicts and the unemployed as a gathering point, but it was also a colorful place occupied by flophouses and brothels, cheap clothing stores, low-cost eateries, as well as a hot spot for after-hour nightclubs such as the raucous drinking establishment and cabaret called Sammy’s, located at 267 Bowery. Currently on view by appointment only at the International Center of Photography (ICP) gallery at Mana Contemporary in Jersey City, New Jersey, is a collection of photographs by the renowned press photographer Weegee—whose real name is Arthur Fellig—titled “Weegee’s Bowery,” a visual document of the Bowery through the eyes of one of the most flamboyant characters in the history of photo reportage.

During this period in New York’s history, there was a lot of criminal activity under the looming presence of the Mob; and where there were murders, that’s where one would find Fellig. Fedora topped over a broad face, armed with a 4×5 Speed graphic camera and strobe, and rarely seen without a Cuban stogey clenched between his teeth, Fellig often appeared at a crime scene before anyone else, even the police. Thus, the nickname Weegee (a reference to the Ouija board game) was coined by his colleagues for his knack of always knowing where to be when a story broke, and was one that Fellig adopted happily.

Fellig was born June 12, 1899, in the town of Lemburg (now Ukraine), under the name of Usher Fellig. At age ten, Fellig and his mother and three brothers emigrated to America to join his father who was a Rabbi in New York. Upon arriving at Ellis Island in 1910, Fellig’s name was changed from Usher to Arthur by the immigration department. Like many of the immigrants before them they settled in the Lower East Side of Manhattan. Fellig’s formal education was cut short when the family needed him to work to bring in extra money by helping his father’s cart-pushing business.

At age 14, Fellig assisted a commercial photographer for several years before leaving after a disagreement on his wage. He then bought a second hand 5×7 view camera and returned to the streets as a portrait photographer. On the weekends when children in the Lower East Side were dressed in their finest, Fellig would set them down on a pony he rented as a prop, and have their portraiture taken with the intent of selling them after to the kids’ family. For the next several years, Fellig continued to roam around New York City doing various low-labor jobs. At 25, Fellig got his break when he was hired by Acme Newspictures (later United Press International) as a darkroom technician and was offered to take photographs when the staff photographers were off-duty. Over the next ten years he would maximize this opportunity and nurture a style that would change the way press photography was captured.

In 1935, disillusioned over the fact that he never got credit for the pictures he turned in at Acme Newspictures, Fellig became a freelance news photographer, and for the next 12 years, he took photos of some of the most well-known criminals as well as memorable images of the New York Police, New York Fire Department, Lower East Side, Sammy’s Night Club, Times Square and Harlem, some of which appeared in publications such as the Herald-Tribune, Daily News, Post and PM Weekly, among others.

In the beginning of his freelance career, Fellig would arrive every midnight at the Manhattan Police Headquarters to check the Teletype machine for any breaking stories, but soon he became dissatisfied and eventually obtained permission from the police department to install a police band radio in his 1938 Chevy Coupe, who was the only photographer allowed to do this at the time. He then went one step further by customizing his car into a second home; a portable darkroom was installed in his trunk, along with extra camera equipment, film holders, flash bulbs, a typewriter, cigars and salami, and a change of clothes. In short, he was always at the ready so that he could roll to a call at a moment’s notice. In his autobiography Weegee (1975), he wrote: “I was no longer glued to the Teletype machine at police headquarters. I had my wings. I no longer had to wait for crime to come to me; I could go after it. The police radio was my life line. My camera. . . my life and my love. . . was my Aladdin’s lamp.”

By the time 1940s rolled around, Fellig’s work and reputation were well on its way to fame. Several of his photographs were included in an exhibition titled “Action Photography” at the Museum of Modern Art in 1943. When World War II ended, Fellig was working for Vogue as a photographer and had just published his first book Naked City (1945), which became a best-seller that Hollywood later turned into a film. For the next two decades, Hollywood became Fellig’s second home. Although he continued to ply his art out west, the works created during that time remains relatively unknown compared to his earlier works. On December 26, 1968, Fellig died of a brain tumor in New York, a city he loved.

In essence, Fellig’s photographs from 1935 to 1947 are among some of his finest works. Often aided by the use of the strobe light which created deep shadows in the photographic frame, together with his strong sense of composition, the pictures seemed perfect together in revealing an authentic urban grittiness. His attention to uncanny details and his intelligence in depicting his subjects within a wider context often lends much more emotional content to his photographs. But above all, as in this collection of images from the Bowery has shown, he loved people and loved photographing people. It is a measure of Fellig’s unique aesthetic that when we think of New York in the 1930s and 1940s today, it’s his pictures, more often than not, that occupy our mind’s eye.

This exhibition “Weegee’s Bowery” is aptly organized in conjunction with the June 23 opening of the new ICP Museum at 250 Bowery, and will remain running at Mana Contemporary until August 5.

WEEGEE, Norma Devin is Sammy’s Mae West, 1944. Courtesy the artist and  International Center of Photography, New York.
WEEGEE, Norma Devin is Sammy’s Mae West, 1944. Courtesy the artist and International Center of Photography, New York.

Billy Kung is photo editor at ArtAsiaPacific.