A Walk with Weegee
“There are 8 million stories in the naked city,” declared New York City – and America’s – premier crime photographer Weegee in his 1945 book, Naked City. And if you hustle over to the International Center of Photography at 6th Avenue and 43rd Street before September, you can see a handful of those stories in the exhibition “Weegee: Murder is My Business,” featuring over 100 original Weegee photographs, drawn from the more than 20,000 prints in the ICP’s Weegee Archive.
Weegee’s story is truly one of the 8 million Naked City stories worth getting to know, since it is so intimately tied to both 1930/40s New York, and to the images we all still carry around in our heads of the city’s perennial landscape of fear. Serenaded occasionally by screaming vintage police sirens or Weegee’s wonderfully weird voice, coming from touch screen gizmos (reputed to have been the model for Peter Sellers’ Dr. Strangelove accent,) you stroll through an arcade of Weegee’s wild life.
One case holds his oversize NYPD/NYFD press pass, his gawky Speed Graphic camera, hat, and the manuscript copy of the first few pages of Murder is My Business, the catalogue of the Photo League show that marked Weegee’s graduation from tabloid crime photographer to “artist.”
There’s a reconstruction of his lower East Side apartment/studio that looks as if Weegee had just run out the door to cover a fire or murder. Photos and texts tell of Weegee’s self-invention and self-promotion; born Usher Fellig in the Polish Ukraine in 1899, he took “Weegee” as his nickname to suggest that he was clairvoyant, like the popular Ouija Board. That supposed clairvoyance was mostly simple photographic sleight-of-hand.
The day that I visited the exhibition, I ran into a Londoner named Sean whom I had met the day before on Gideon’s Little Italy Gangster Tour. Sean motioned me over to a photograph of a dead man face down on a sidewalk – the February 2, 1942 murder of gangster Andrew Izzo outside the Spring Arrow Social and Athletic Club at 344 Broome Street. In that photo, a gun lay close to Izzo’s outstretched arm and hand, but Sean then pointed out a second, earlier photo, from when Weegee first arrived at the scene; the gun lay a couple of yards away.
Living directly across the street from Police Headquarters, where he kept a police radio on at all times, and knowing full well that an occasional small bribe won him special favors from the cops, Weegee had unparalleled access to his subjects – both dead and alive. After you take in the ICP exhibition, head down to Little Italy, and to the magnificent old Police Headquarters building at 240 Center Street. Once you’ve ogled the gorgeous gilt statue of Manhattan at the top of the cupola, and caught a nasty look from the doorman (now home to dozens of multi-million dollar apartments, as well as Calvin Klein, Stefi Graff and Leonardo DiCaprio), stroll around the back to # 6 Centre Market Place.
Think back to that photo in the exhibition of Weegee perched with his camera on the narrow ledge of the bay window at the front of Frank Lava’s gun shop, the giant police revolver hanging at Weegee’s feet. Directly across the street is the back entrance to Police Headquarters, where cops would conduct their “perp walks” that allowed the press to get their photos and the cops to get their credits in the captions. Like #5 next door – once home both to Weegee’s apartment , the John Jovino Gun Shop (now around the corner on Grand Street), and a basement firing range – these and the other tenements of Centre Market Place have recently had gentrifying facelifts. But if you squint just right, you can see the paddy wagons pulling up and hear the cops barking orders at the handcuffed suspects.
There are dozens of locations of famous Weegee crime photos from this neighborhood, but the most iconic of all lies just a few blocks north, at 10 Prince Street. There, on a balmy night in November, 1939, Angelo Greco was shot down while standing in the doorway of his candy store. While other photographers snapped their “ten-foot shots” – close-ups – Weegee stepped across the street and caught the wider view, of the upstairs neighbors leaning out windows and gawking from fire escapes. There are even a few kids reading the funny papers, oblivious to the carnage below.
Not only can you place yourself in Weegee’s shoes there on Prince Street; you can hear him tell the story himself:
Once you’ve heard Weegee pronounce “moi-duh” and stood below that fire escape, (and taken a Gangster Tour!) Little Italy will never again seem like just a place to get good cannoli.
By Dr. Kevin Dann