• Robert Birnbaum

"f/8 and Be There"

Updated: Jun 10, 2018


Industrial societies turn their citizens into image-junkies; it is the most irresistible form of mental pollution. Susan Sontag


FLASH, the Making of WEEGEE THE FAMOUS by Christopher Bonanos

In a world in which well over 85 percent if the ‘ photos' re taken by camera equipped phones, the body of work that preceded the mobil digitalization is, happily, kept alive by museums and a few brave publishers. And better yet there have verb a recent spate of biographies and memoirs that inform us of the men and women who have contributed  to that golden age of photography Avedon: Something Personal by Norma Stevensand Steven M. L. Aronson (a controversial bio of Richard Avedon), American Witness: The Art and Life of Robert Frank by RJ Smith,Berenice Abbott: A Life in Photography by Julia Van Haaften, Diane Arbus: Portrait of a Photographer by Arthur Lubow Vivian Maier: A Photographer’s Life and Afterlife by Pamela Bannos, Hold Still: A Memoir with Photographs ,Sally Mann Susan Meiselas: Mediations by Ariella Azoulay,   Eduardo Cadava ,  Marianne Hirsch The Street Philosophy of Garry Winogrand by Geoff Dyer and Garry Winogrand and Joel Meyerowitz: Where I Find Myself: A Lifetime Retrospective  by Joel Meyerowitzand Colin Westerbeck.



Photograph from ICP / Getty

New York Magazine city editor Christopher Bonanos (author of Instant: The Story of Polaroid.) offers the  most recent entry into this bibliographical treasure trove with Flash: The Making of Weegee the Famous , the first complete (and for the time being definitive )biography of Usher (Arthur)Fellig known as Weegee. Of Fellig ,who died in 1968, previously there had only been his fragmented and untrustworthy memoir, published in 1961. 


Weegee who liked to boast that he was “the official photographer for Murder Inc." turned street photography into art. There is an abundance of monographs collecting the images of murder, fires, mayhem and urban oddities that comprise the body of work for which Weegee is known. Still, it is first book ("immortally titled" opines Thomas Mallon) Naked City published in 1945 for which he may be best known.




Weegee's Naked City
“Their First Murder” (1941). Photograph by Weegee / ICP / Getty


“Showgirl Backstage” (circa 1950). Photograph by Weegee / ICP / Getty


“Life Saving” (1940). Photograph by Weegee / ICP / Getty


“Unusual Crime” (circa 1940). Photograph by Weegee / ICP / Getty


To view Weegee's photographs today (19,000 of which are archived at the International Center of Photography) ) , more than most street photography. is to take in a documentary on the mid century life of the burgeoning metropolis of New York City as well as to view the zeitgeist of that by gone era. And to read his story. is to marvel at Usher (Arthur)Fellig's skill at, and powerful drive for, self creation ( and the production of a substantial and well regarded body of work. As Mallon points out,


A classic from 1936, made on the sidewalk in front of 90 Elizabeth Street in Little Italy. “I made the stiff look real cozy, as if he were taking a short nap.”Photograph by Weegee / ICP / Getty


"More than anyone else, it was Arthur Fellig...whose “photographs of the poor were made—at least, originally—for the poor themselves.” The New Yorkers Weegee photographed—especially those caught up in sudden calamities of crime and fire—obtained a kind of fame that lasted not fifteen minutes but more like fifteen hours, until the next morning’s edition swept away the previous afternoon’s."




On a hot weekend in July 1940, the head count on the beach at Coney Island approached one million.Photograph by Weegee / ICP / Getty

If you are pressed for time and or need some encouragement to delve into Christopher Bonanos's engrossing study of the the man who introduced himself as the "“the world’s greatest living photographer.” he offers up a précis in the Paris Review, "The Man Behind the Weegee"***


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* Thomas Mallon Website


** The New Yorker


*** Paris Review


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