WEEGEE THE FAMOUS
Weegee, the photographer whose images came to define New York in the 1930s and 40s, was born Usher Fellig, 1899, in modern day Ukraine. He became Arthur Fellig when the family came to the America in 1909. Working for Acme Newspictures, in the darkroom, then as a news photographer specialising in fires, crashes and murders, he was nicknamed Weegee – a reference to the Ouija board and an uncanny skill at being in the right place when a story broke. He lived behind New York’s central police station and was allowed to carry a police radio in his car. Enjoying celebrity, one of his photographic stamps carries the legend Weegee the Famous. His first book, Naked City (1945) was a huge success and he sold the name to the Jules Dassin film of 1948, which it inspired. Weegee’s People (1946) built on that reputation and in the late 40s he worked on a retainer for PM Newspaper. Following his taste for celebrity, he published Naked Hollywood in 1953. He died in 1968.
Side Gallery in Newcastle, part of Amber Film & Photography Collective, organised the first UK tour of Weegee’s work in the early 1980s, around the time that Sid Kaplan was printing the Weegee Portfolio. During the 80s Amber developed a strong relationship with Weegee’s widow, Wilma Wilcox and The AmberSide Collection holds a significant number of the prints prints Kaplan made. In 2008 Amber’s Pat McCarthy interviewed Kaplan.
Sid Kaplan: The first time I ever heard of Weegee was maybe when I was about 12 or 13 years old, looking through one of the photo annuals. They did a lot of photography annuals back then. There was a picture in there titled Weegee and Friend, the way he’s been stereotyped: right next to a very, very good looking woman in a swimsuit on the beach somewhere in California. I did find out later that it was Peter Gowland that took the picture, so it was one of his models. In the 40s and 50s he was a very well known girl and cheesecake photographer. At the time I was mostly interested in the photographic technique. In all those photo annuals there was always some there. Of course, I did also look at the women, but that was the first time I heard of him. And later on through photo magazines I did see pictures of his which were real good.
So fast forward… They used to have an organization in town called the PMDA, I think it was, Photographic Manufacturers’ and Distributors’ Association, where they would set up a convention showing off their latest software, their hardware, their chemistry. Whatever had to do with image making at that time, they had a booth there. There was one of the booths called Wabash – they manufactured flash bulbs – and they had a little booklet called Weegee’s Secrets. I was about 13, maybe 14. Maybe it was the first year of high school, but I knew who Weegee was. I don’t know how many dozens of times I read Weegee’s Secrets, every page of it. And I always put in my Wabash number 11 flash bulb at that time. You know, in the text it was always – I couldn’t have gotten this picture without the Wabash flash bulbs, because that’s the one that never failed. Weegee was there signing books: it was being billed as Come and meet King Weegee and he was sitting on a throne and he had that 4 x 5 speed graphic with the Wabash flash bulbs in there. And if you had any questions that Weegee could answer with the time he was able to write his name and the big line that was there, well…
I walked up to Weegee like a kid would walk up to Babe Ruth. He was one of my biggest heroes and so that’s the first time I met him. I was part of a juvenile club with the Police Athletic League, which was a New York institution for kids so they wouldn’t get in trouble on the street. They had a camera club and at that same expo they had an exhibition, and people would vote for what they thought was the best picture. There was some very serious prizes like a couple of rolls of film or maybe some Wabash flash bulbs. Weegee started coming by because he was maybe between shows and we started talking to him and of course he voted for what he thought was the best picture, which happened to be one of mine and I thanked him and he said something to the effect of Kid, you gotta good future ahead of you, and then very, very deadpan, Hey kid, tell me, have you ever thought about stamp collecting? The prize was a DeJour exposure meter, which, at the time, I thought it was kind of an insult. You know, Real men don’t need light meters! If you can’t judge your own exposure without a light meter you don’t deserve to have to have a picture.
The way it was with the photography community, our paths were constantly crossing. There was a Village Camera Club, where Weegee was not a member, but he would like going to the meetings. Most of the time he knew the guest speaker and it was a hangout. After the camera club broke up, they would go to a coffee house/photo gallery called The Limelight. I called him Weegee and then I got a little bit bolder and called him Uncle Weegee, which he didn’t say anything about, but he did not give me a nice look.
Wilma [Wilcox] was in the Photo League, but it disbanded around this time, because, you know, with the pictures they were taking, they had to be communist… So for a social thing they all kind of started drifting toward the Village Camera Club. I guess like everybody else you need some kind of social life to hang out in. Weegee and Lisette Model were always talking. He would acknowledge me – Get outta here, kid! kind of thing. Lisette, at that time, I don’t know, she probably knew me for what I was: this crazy Jewish kid from the Projects. I didn’t know, at the time, she was some kind of countess. I went to what they called Vocational High School, which basically said: These kids, we don’t know if they’re going to make it in the academic world, so maybe we should teach them some kind of a trade so they won’t be a burden on society. They had dark rooms and, as soon as I got out of school, I had the camera and I was going through the streets, exploring, taking pictures, whatever I could do, not to go home for as long as possible, because home life was not that conducive to wanting to be there. Exploring the city was a very good excuse.
Sometimes I’d see some of Weegee’s pictures and I immediately knew what street corner it was. The identity with his work was always there. But I was constantly running into him and after a while he kind of got used to me. At the time also he was working on a project called The Village. And for me, the Village was a very hip place to be. I was there with the camera and I started taking pictures in the area and Weegee was photographing the same areas: the coffee houses, not so much the bars, but there were lots of chess houses, poetry reading places and, of course, Washington Square Park. There was always events happening there. And also with the same people, a big thing was pay-the-rent parties, where there would be music and wine and just pay something at the door because they needed the money for the rent. So I would go to a lot of pay-the-rent parties and take pictures there and at two of them, Weegee was also there photographing. The only difference was, I knew too many people there, and I would join them eventually in the corner sipping cheap wine and maybe forgot about taking pictures after a while. So I would constantly run into him in those places too and by that time he knew I was taking pictures and so that was, that was chapter one.
ENCOUNTERS IN THE PHOTO DISTRICT
Sid Kaplan: OK, so chapter two. It’s now June ‘56, I’ve just graduated high school and it’s either find a job or go to the military, so I wind up in a small studio in what is called the Theatre District on 46th Street, between 6th and 7th Avenue. Weegee was living on 47th between 9th and 10th, so he was in the neighbourhood too. One of the big cottage industries at the time was girlie pictures. Playboy magazine just came out and the amount of money that Playboy was paying for the centrefolds, I think it was $300 back then, a lot of photographers wanted to get a piece of that kind of money. The place I was working in, a lot of similar places where they were real hurting for money, they tried working into it. Photographers would come in, maybe 15 or 20 of them and there’d be a seamless background and a naked or a semi-naked girl would come on the thing and they would all congregate and get angles of them.
Most of them, when they had cameras, I don’t think they knew how to use it or if there was film in it, they just wanted to get a good peep at what was going on, but with everybody putting some money into the pot, they were able to pay the girl and maybe have some expenses left over. And Weegee loved going into those places. And if the word was out that Weegee was going to be there, a lot more people would come in. So there was 3 studios that I knew of that he was doing that to. Well, my job there was rolling down the seamless paper and I had a light meter and if somebody would say, I got ASA 200 film, I would say look at the light meter and say, 1/60th at F5, or 6 or something like that. And Weegee was also taking pictures there and out of the corner of my eye what I saw him doing was, he was taking pictures of all these guys with the cameras jockeying for position and off on the side was the model. Weegee was also starting a magazine called Night and Day and, meeting some of these girls there, he was able to say Hey! We’re doing something, wanna do some private pictures? or something like that.
Anyway, the studio job I was doing, the only problem was I wasn’t getting paid. So I wind up in a studio, working as an assistant, right by the 59th Street Bridge, for a photographer doing commercial work at the time and to help to pay some of the expenses, there was another photographer sharing the studio, whose work I knew and loved and respected. I’d seen his work in the photo magazines, I really thought he was good, it was Lou Stettner and he had an assistant by the name of Aaron, as in Rose. That was in 1957. Stettner was having some problems financially and he couldn’t pay Aaron any more and Danny, the guy I was with, he wasn’t as busy as he thought, so him and Lou Stettner decided what they were going to do is share an assistant.
Well, I had no idea at the time that Stettner and Weegee knew each other, but Stettner was always on the phone and he’s saying Weegee is sick, and He’s in the hospital. Him and Stettner were pretty close. They would go to a druggist to get Weegee’s prescriptions filled and, as the assistant, I was the guy to run it down to Weegee’s house. Well the first time I walk in there, Weegee sees me, You’re Stettner’s assistant? So he was maybe a little bit more polite. I guess he was the first guy who I ever seen that got sick and went through a very accelerated ageing machine, very accelerated. He looked old. I guess he lost a lot of weight, because his clothes were hanging off him. It had something to do with the brain I think. A tumour. At the end that’s what did him.
Stettner didn’t like New York, so he went off to go back to Paris or Spain or something like that and I didn’t see him for quite a few years. By that time the other guy and Stettner, they were finding out that maybe I was more of a liability than an asset. At the time, you know, when you’re 19 years old, I guess you’re a lot smarter than you should be. You knew all the answers and nobody could tell you anything. But it was good working for Stettner, because the work he was doing was illustrating girls romance magazines, I’m in love with this guy and he thinks more of his car than me or something. Lou would have to read the story and come up with some sort of photo illustration for it. So going with him on some of those locations was fun. Seeing the way he’s trying to do something to get the expression out of the models. It was a good experience, but then he upped and went to Europe and I didn’t see him for quite a few years. At the time I was already working in another big photo lab in the photo district, so, again, I would always run into Weegee. We both liked the same automat on Times Square and we’d run into each other sometimes late at night there. I’ve already made 20 or 30,000 prints. I know what I’m doing and I’m starting to get a little bit more upgraded jobs. The lab was doing an exhibition for Expo 67, in Montreal, and Weegee had a couple of prints in it. We needed the negative, so he came up to the lab personally and we start talking and the boss says Hey! you know crazy Weegee? There was the Coney Island negative and then there was the kid looking down on the fire escape. I forgot the third one, but, of course, Weegee said, Be careful of these negatives! And with the kid looking down on the fire escape, there was an area in the frame that he would have cropped anyway and was gonna be cropped in the exhibition, and he just took a regular pen and wrote his name right on it and I’m thinking, God, that’s a little bit sacrilegious! And he was going to do it with the Coney Island negative, but he said, Be careful of losing it, because I can’t crop anything off it.
If you see the original negative, there were spots of sun. What we had to do, to make all the people from corner to corner look even, was a lot of burning and dodging, so some of the dark areas might be a little bit lighter than it should be and some of the bright areas to make it balanced had to be burnt down a little bit more than it should have. Needless to say he was a little bit surprised that I was the guy making the exhibition prints. What finally happened, I left the Times Square area and started my own thing on 23rd Street – my own studio, my own darkroom. One of the problems on 23rd Street, after a certain time, everything closed up, there was no place to eat, but I just happened to know that Times Square automat that was open all night. So I started running into Weegee and I told him, Well, I started my own place, I had too much with that place, time to move on. And then he says to me, What’s the biggest size print you could make? And I said, Well, there’s 16 x 20 and the biggest 20 x 24. And he made sure before we split that he had my phone number, there’s something he wants to do and he’ll call me. Of course I didn’t hear from him and one day I was going into the camera store and one of the salesmen behind the counter says, According to the newspaper they’re burying our friend Weegee today. And they said The Times gave him a very dignified obituary and that was the end of Weegee.