Famous news photographer Weegee worked for a bunch of New York City newspapers in his day, but only one of them distinguished itself with an emphasis on illustrated reportage.
At Hyperallergic, I recently reviewed the debut English translation of 2016’s fictionalized black and white bande dessinée Weegee: Serial Photographer by Belgian cartoonists Max de Radiguès and Wauter Mannaert. While there are fictionalized relationships and events in the comic, it’s often a real-life accounting of the work of famed news photographer Arthur “Weegee” Fellig and what would eventually be deemed pioneering acts of photojournalism.
Weegee lived in a cramped studio apartment on a block-long stretch of Lower Manhattan called Centre Market Place until the late 1940s. When he wasn’t monitoring the police paddy wagons that brought arrests in for processing from his window, he was either hunting down tips across the street at police headquarters or on his way to a crime scene in his car, which was equipped with a police radio and mobile darkroom. He worked constantly, even when he was on the move.
“My car became my home,” he wrote in 1961’s self-aggrandizing Weegee: The Autobiography. “It was a two-seater, with a special extra-large luggage compartment. I kept everything there, an extra camera, cases of flashbulbs, extra loaded holders, a typewriter, fireman’s boots, boxes of cigars, salami, infra-red film for shooting in the dark, uniforms, disguises, a change of underwear, and extra shoes and socks.”
Writer de Radiguès and artist Mannaert look to that autobiography to build their chronology of Weegee’s comings and goings, specifically demonstrating for readers the photographer’s propensity for orchestrating shots. There’s lots more to Weegee: Serial Photographer, and I tried to cover it within a reasonable word count at Hyperallergic. Over the course of researching this fascinating Ukraine-born, New York City news hound, I ended up pretty far down a wormhole about a daily tabloid from the era called PM.
Founded in 1940, PM was mostly a progressive-leaning newspaper that didn’t run ads and was built entirely on pictorial journalism. Its staffers and contributors included writers Dorothy Parker and I.F. Stone, as well as American abstract painter Ad Reinhardt, cartoonist and illustrator Colton Waugh—whom comics scholars might recognize as having authored 1947’s The Comics—and Weegee. Serial Photographer‘s subject spent a wealth of time working in darkrooms, but when PM first hit the streets of Manhattan, he had been freelancing as a photojournalist for only a few years.
“The editors will try to maintain a 3-to-2 ratio between space devoted to pictures and text,” The New Yorker reported of PM‘s launch at the time. “PM is also going to revive the old custom of having artists, instead of photographers, cover many of its news stories.”
PM indeed used and prized a stable of photographers, but University of Delaware professor and author Jason E. Hill notes that the paper also “set out to revive the long-dormant practice of sketch reporting.” In his 2018 book Artist as Reporter: Weegee, Ad Reinhardt, and the PM News Picture, Hill explores the innovative illustration- and photography-based newspaper’s origins, seventy years after its shuttering in 1948.
“…(PM‘s) editors brought into the tabloid’s productive orbit those picture makers they deemed best equipped to make the pictorial work of journalism present as a deeply thoughtful, self-analytical, and emphatically visibly affair,” he writes.
For my purposes, Artist as Reporter delves deeply into Weegee’s work at PM, but there’s lots more—a look at the documentary photography of Lewis Hine, for example, as well as a reproduction of a PM portfolio of charcoal drawings from artist Victor Candell, who filed illustrated reportage of the inhuman conditions faced by Chinese hand-laundry workers in New York City’s West Village neighborhood during a heat wave in the summer of 1940.
Weeks ahead of PM‘s proper newsstand debut, in the newspaper’s makeshift office at the Museum of Modern Art’s auditorium in April 1940, “three members of the founding staff scanned the morning news for interesting local items and issued ‘spot news assignments’ to a group of artists gathered there to report them in pictures,” writes Hill. “Thus discharged, these artists went out into the city to produce their sketch reports, returning to the museum after lunch to file their results.”
Weegee’s inaugural photo (and first actual byline) appeared in PM‘s pages in June of 1940 by way of a totally on-brand report from a car accident.
For the first of a series of photos of a popular respite from the unforgiving New York City heat he sold to the newspaper, Weegee sped south with a female hitchhiker he picked up at the foot of the Manhattan Bridge in his Chevy on a Sunday in June of 1940. In addition to a credit having appeared for the first time at PM, the visual-focused editors afforded him space to write about his work.
“It started to feel sticky Sunday afternoon,” read Weegee’s copy that PM ran with his beach dispatch in the summer of 1940. “I figured out it must be the heat…and not that I needed a haircut. So I figured that, it being hot, I might as well go to Coney Island and get that first crowd picture of the season.”
From a lofty perch at a lifeguard station he secured—and clad in already-sandy “shoes, stockings, and underwear”—Weegee leaned out over part of an estimated crowd of 700,000 beachgoers and snapped. The photos ran in the next day’s edition, and Weegee would go on to sell his pictures to PM for the next six years.
Cover image of Weegee: Serial Photographer © 2016, 2018 Éditions Sarbacane, Paris. English edition available via Conundrum Press. “Weegee Lives for His Work…” and “Yesterday at Coney Island…” (PM, July 22, 1940, pp. 16–17) via International Center of Photography by way of Fans in a Flashbulb. Cover image of Artist as Reporter © 2018 University of California Press.