Visible Contamination

Bert Danckaert

In the 1930s and 40s of the twentieth century, Weegee (5) was photographing the streets of New York’s Lower East Side. With a large camera and flash he captured the turbulent nightlife in which crime and murder took center stage. He kept a police and fire brigade radio next to his bed (often arriving at a crime scene before the police). Weegee catalogued a bitter reality that in photographic print sooner looked like a film noir scene, perhaps inspired by the crime cinema that was particularly popular at the time and that Weegee enjoyed watching as a respite between the murders, fires, calamities, and domestic violence.

Weegee Working in the Trunk of His Chevrolet, 1942.

Through the frame of the camera each scene becomes a staging: a shift from raw reality to fictive photography.

Ouija board

The pseudonym Weegee is an onomatopoeia for Ouija, a kind of clairvoyant instrument. Weegee certainly had a gift for anticipating the exact location of where the dead bodies or crashed cars were to be found. Weegee also stems from the nickname “squeegee boy” given to the assistants who dried the prints with a rubber roller before they went to the editor’s office. The squeegee boy was at the bottom of the ranks in photography, and is where Weegee had begun his carrier.

Weegee, Their First Murder, 1941

Weegee was the creator of his own myth; during an exhibition he had at Photo League in 1941, he wrote half the comments in the visitors’ book himself (all of which were of course full of high praise), he also claimed to have a darkroom in the trunk of his car, which was not true. Though the trunk did house half an office, with a typewriter, cameras, flashes, and cigars. Despite the fact he had no artistic ambitions, Weegee’s work has had endless influence on many artists in later decades, such as Stanley Kubrick or Diane Arbus.

Diane Arbus, Elderly Couple on a Park Bench, N.Y.C., 1969

Today his influence continues to be widespread. In one of Weegee’s photographs Their First Murder from 1941, we see a group of people of both genders and all ages looking at a scene outside of the frame. The caption written beneath informs us that a murder has just taken place: “A woman relative cried … but neighborhood dead-end kids enjoyed the show when a small-time racketeer was shot and killed.” In one sentence (which appeared in the publication Naked City in 1954) Weegee describes the diverse emotional reactions of this group of people confronted with a murder for the first time. The woman in the center of the frame weeps, while the boys surrounding her peer nervously into the lens or elbow one another aside. A blond boy laughs looking longingly over the crowd at the dead man, who is not visible in this photograph. You could cut the tension with a knife; each individual has their own story and their own response to this all too emotional event. Weegee’s flash in the nightlight becomes a metaphor for this explosive moment.

Stanley Kubrick and Weegee on the set of Dr. Strangelove, 1963

By removing the subject, the subject’s reflection onto its surroundings becomes the key issue. Therefore, in the case of Weegee we can speak of visible contamination; a projection, like light on a film roll, is only a shadow of reality.