It was the 1930’s, Manhattan, New York. News was disseminated by evening and morning newspaper publications. Writers were important, but headlines and photos sold newspapers. The photos that made the post not only needed to be well made, but they had to be fast and at the right price. Even in that era, news happened fast and no single Newpaper had more than a handful of staff photographers, and they specialized in posed portraits of ladies drinking tea in their social groups. But at the heart of the front page photography was the freelance photographer, and they all played a cut-throat game. In Manhattan, the master freelance photographer was unarguably Ascher Fellig, better by his nickname, WeeGee.
In 2011, I wrote an article on WeeGee’s technique. I’ll admit that I hadn’t known much about him at the time, but through my research on the topic I was exposed to much of his work and was completely mesmerized. His work is met with a fine line that sits somewhere between photojournalism and street photography. I wanted to shool like WeeGee. Anyone studying the art of photography will of course be exposed to the great Henri Cartier-Bresson at some point. Cartier-Bresson is one of the greatest street photographers of all time. But there was something about WeeGee’s work that truly inspired me. In the world of street photography, it always seemed like the two photographers would have been at opposite ends of the spectrum. Cartier-Bresson captured intimate and positive imagry. WeeGee, on the other hand, had a knack for capturing the dark moments; people at their worst or the moments just after something truly horrible happened. WeeGee’s work seemed more raw, more honest. It was a dark commentary on the human condition, and that really appealed to me. I’ve loved his work ever since.
WeeGee’s Skillset: Tailored for Competition
As photographers in this era, we might submit for a competition a few times a year, probably less. But WeeGee was in competition every day against other freelance photographers. The story goes that he was once prompted about his technique and he allegedly answered “f/8 and Be There”. Whether or not he actually said it is somewhat irrelevant. The phrase has somewhat become the mantra of street photographers and photojournalists everywhere.
There is a lot of honesty in the saying, even today. But in the context of the era, he was working with a technologically primitive version of a focal plane shutter, specifically a Graflex 4×5 Speed Graphic camera. At the time, it was considered to be among the best for reporter work, but it was slow to use. The film holder often held only one or two sheets of film at a time, though later models held more. The shutter was manually operated and the photographer had to change the holder between shots to shield off the film from getting exposed. Indoors, the flash bulbs also had to be swapped out between shots because they only lasted one exposure each. To say it was difficult to get the shot would be an understatement: If you weren’t still trying to set up for the next shot, you had to make split-second decisions whether this was the moment. Because if you took the shot too early, you stood the risk of missing it all together.
So the philosophy of f/8 and Be There, eliminates several steps from this tedious process. Having a predefined aperture means you generally know what you can expect for a depth of field and you knew the limits of the focus. Under certain conditions, you’d even be able to predict the shutter speed. So the only limiting factor was how fast you can change the cartridge and operate the shutter. WeeGee was basically operating by feel, a method built for speed and efficiency if not for artistic appreciation. But considering his subject matter, the aesthetics was less of a concern than getting the shot.
That’s where the second part of the mantra comes into play, and it’s probably the most important: Be There. In other words, you can’t take the shot if you’re not present. WeeGee earned his nickname from the phonetic spelling of the word Ouija, those boards where you supposedly talk to spirits. The joke was that he had spiritual guidance as he often made it to a crime scene well before the Police. In truth, he was the only freelance photographer to be have a permit to keep a portable police-band radio in his car. So he was finding out about police calls the same time the officers were. And when he got his shot, his car was also set up to hold a portable dark room so he could develop the film on the scene, ready to be peddled to the highest bidder before other photographers even showed up. I feel it’s this piece of the philosophy that actually paved the way for his career and fame.
Opportunity Yields Time For Commentary
Here’s the brilliance of WeeGee’s work: He was so far ahead of his competition that he had time to think about his shot. On scene, he would have had time to compose the perfect shot, especially if he beat the police. He could set up, frame up and simply wait for the magic to happen. It’s not hard, after all, to predict how a shot will line up at a murder scene, for example: Chances are someone is going to approach the body. So WeeGee basically carved out his own opportunities through his methodology. But that’s not the brilliant part, yet.
To analyze his works so many years later, I would imagine that Fellig had a bit of a dark perspective of human nature. In the face of crime on a daily basis, I can only imagine it’s hard not to view the world with cynicism. But the darker story is what he seemed to focus on, at least in the early part of his career. It just always seemed to me that each of his photographs yielded some sort of subtle commentary about the human condition. To me, the purpose of the shot was not the drunk or the corpse that often pulled the eye. No, I believe the purpose of the shot was the reaction of the others in the photograph. It was the expression of the police first observing the scene. I believe WeeGee was trying to make the bystanders the subject of the photo. It’s less obvious, but there’s so much more to reveal in their stories.
To me, the beauty of Fellig’s work is really housed in that split second when he chose to hold out for just a tiny bit longer. I might have taken the shot too early. WeeGee would have waited one second longer. His photo would have won the front page above the fold. He would have sold papers with his work. Many people wouldn’t even know why.
But that’s the haunting thing, in a way: We thought WeeGee was studying the scene when in practice, he was actually studying the observer. He knew us, the consumer, better than we knew ourselves.