Images of a Grittier America

Burlesque Performers

In the photographs of Weegee (born Usher Fellig in Austrian Galicia in 1899), the streets are not paved with gold. They are occasionally paved with the bloody bodies of slain hoods. According to Edward Kosner writing in the New York Review of Books:

He snapped his mesmerizing photographs in a sweaty frenzy between seventy and eighty years ago. There are two haughty dowagers accosted by a shabbily dressed drunk woman at the opening of the Metropolitan Opera; children sleeping on a fire escape in a slum; a man arrested for cross-dressing grinning and baring his thigh in the back of a paddy wagon; a panoramic mob filling every inch of sand at Coney Island; an anguished mother in a black kerchief staring at the tenement fire in which her daughter and granddaughter are perishing. These familiar images were captured by an immigrant working in the depths of the Depression and wartime for a couple of dollars per newspaper shot.

Body of a Gunshot Victim Lying in the Street

Weegee’s pictures were shot with a Speed Graphic in high-contrast black and white. A few of his pictures show people celebrating, but most are somber pictures of a society peopled by floozies, cheap hoods, juvenile delinquents, and other victims. Through sheer persistence and bloody-mindedness, Weegee became something of a celebrity with his photographs. He took to calling himself Weegee the Genius and hoped to become a celebrity himself—and he was one, but always in a minor key.

A Thug (or Victim?) Being Hauled Off to the Police Station (or Hospital?)

Hollywood gave us one picture of life in America, but Weegee presented us with a grittier alternative America. The men wore suits, hats, and ties, but one had the feeling that was most of their wardrobe. Look at those faces peering through the car window in the above photo. These people will not be found in screwball comedies. They don’t have English butlers, and their wives are not dressed in the latest fashions from Paris.