The Naked Nightcrawler: Weegee at the movies

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THE FIRST THING YOU SEE IN THE FILM The Set-Up (1949), one of the definitive dark boxing movies, built on the ruined honour that washed-up fighter Robert Ryan trails behind him through the trash around the Skid Row arena where he meets his nemesis, is the back of the timekeeper sitting ringside, one hand poised to hammer the bell, eyes glued to a stopwatch held in the other.

Glimpsed throughout the movie, hat pushed back and chomping a damp-looking black cigar, the timekeeper inhabits the boundary between the brutality of the ring and the rabid crowd baying at his back, yet he remains utterly detached from both. Although he is the one who will stop or start the action, controlling what the audience sees, he is removed from his surroundings, outside it all, focused only on the seconds ticking off on his watch, making sure he does his job at precisely the correct instant.

Later, when Ryan has entered the ring for his last fight, we see the timekeeper face-on, and notice a strange thing: at the exact moment he rings the bell, his eyes snap shut, like the shutter mechanism of a camera.

Although he goes unlisted among the onscreen credits, the timekeeper in The Set-Up is played by the photographer Arthur Fellig, better known to the world under his self-anointed alias, Weegee the Famous, and this probably marks the most resonant, heavily freighted instance of bit-part casting in the history of Hollywood.

The cycle of American movies that came to be known as film noir – among which, The Set-Up is a prime example – may have traced its literary roots back through the hard-boiled schools of Cain, Chandler and Hammett all the way to Poe. Visually, however, these films, with their relentless fascination for carving stark, but skewed and heightened images of desperate small lives led out of the light in the battered fringe areas of the city, had been anticipated by Weegee as early as 1935, when he first began making his midnight rambles as a freelance news photographer through the canyons of New York.

Weegee was still called Arthur Fellig in 1935. Like many of the architects of American noir, he was a European immigrant, born in Austria in 1899 and arriving on the Lower East Side eleven years later. He worked around cameras off and on from 1913, when he left school to become assistant to a commercial photographer. By the time he was eighteen, Fellig was living alone among the flophouses of the Bowery and worked a succession of jobs – as a labourer and taking passport photographs – until 1924, when he found employment in the darkrooms of Acme Newspictures. Curiously enough, his interaction with cinema started around this time, in a typically unexpected manner: he started moonlighting by night to provide fiddle music accompaniment to silent features in a local movie theatre.

Although given occasional photography assignments while at Acme, Fellig was frustrated and he left in 1935 to go it alone. Living in a room near Manhattan Police Headquarters, he tuned his radio to the wavelength used by the police and the fire departments; picking up emergency calls in the night, he soon built a reputation among the picture editors of the city’s hungry tabloids for his photographs of fires, auto-smashes, criminals and all their victims.

In 1938 he became the only press photographer permitted to carry a police radio in his car, and he was soon notorious for beating not only his rivals, but the police themselves to the scenes of crimes. Sometimes he seemed eerily prescient, appearing on the spot even before an incident had occurred. In 1940, clued up to the power of self-promotion, he started asking that his pictures be credited to Weegee, a bastardised derivation from Ouija board.

Weegee’s fame was built on his facility with time: not only his ability to be in the right place at the right time, but his intuitive knowledge of which exact two-hundredth of a second to capture and freeze: when the blood was still running from the dead guy’s face; or the woman driving the car was still shocked enough to hold onto the copper’s hand.

Composing images at the same unthinking rate as a boxer composes his punches, Weegee was a street-photographer the way other men were street fighters, proud of what he did and with a reputation to keep up. As a freelancer with no steady contract, he depended upon selling his work to live, had to capture the most instantly striking, sensational pictures he could to keep the tabloids happy.

As such, he was merciless, and his work had the smell of the underground about it. In the film noir world, Weegee’s equivalents were the thieves, voyeurs and obsessive psychopaths hunting the city after dark. Touring alleyways in his car, even going so far as to clamber among the fire escapes of the broken-down tenements, he took his victims when they weren’t looking, when they were dumbly open with shock or despair, when they were asleep and, most notoriously, when they felt safely hidden in darkness, in a remarkable series of eerie, black-eyed photographs he shot using infrared film and flash: stalking lovers vulnerably exposed in the seats of cinemas and fumbling at nights on the unlit beach of Coney Island.

For all the hardness and the rotted humour of his gaze – Weegee’s photography can easily be seen as precursor to the urban freakshows of Diane Arbus – however, Weegee also had a peculiar tenderness. You see it most clearly in his “sleep” pictures, images that capture both the colossal hardness of the city conspiring around his helpless subjects and the brief soft magic of their unknowable respite from it. All of Weegee’s sleepers look related somehow, united in innocence.

“Social commentary” was probably a phrase he had little time for: if he chanced upon a group of grimy children trying to escape the heat by sleeping out on one of the filthy fire-escapes that he climbed, huddled together on rags like blind kittens in a box, he simply snapped them, moved on, and sold the print.

The collection of Weegee’s photographs published in 1945 as The Naked City took him to Tinseltown, when, applying his techniques of hidden street photography, director Jules Dassin built a fine noir flick around that title three years later: it is a film that is as much about kids playing hopscotch as it is about blondes found strangled in their bathtubs.

Weegee hung around the town for a while, taking photographs for his book Naked Hollywood and turning up on the edges of things like The Set-Up. Following Hollywood, he worked on commissions for Vogue magazine and sold pictures to the Museum of Modern Art. But seeing pictures of him rubbing, bug-eyed, up against the likes Tony Curtis and Janet Leigh at some glitzy opening is enough to demonstrate that he never really fit in among the glitter.

Weegee’s people were never the iconic nighthawks Edward Hopper found at the diner. Rather they were the worn down, dirty twilight citizens Tom Waits christened “raindogs” (indeed, the cover of Waits’ great album of that title is highly reminiscent of one of Weegee’s “sleep” photographs): a cast of sailors on leave, failed singers, sleepy circus clowns and strippers, tired mothers of hungry-eyed children, midget newspaper vendors, hookers and transvestites, young lovers with nowhere to go, children engaged in the profound escape of a movie show, ex-cons and men who seem to have been old forever.

There were eight million stories in the naked city, including the stories that no one wanted to hear, and the stories that no one wanted told. Keeping the time frozen forever, Weegee’s photographs told them all. And the telling of them became his own.

This piece is included in the collection Supporting Features