by Jonathan Hayes
Love at first sight is always followed by a period of recognition of initially unnoticed flaws, with subsequent acceptance or rejection of the hastily beloved. I fell wildly in love with New York City when I was a young child; decades later, I still feel like kissing the sidewalk of this sainted isle whenever I launch myself from my doorstep into the world. I’m well aware of the city’s complexities – sometimes brutally aware, given my work as a medical examiner here – but I embrace it in all its beautiful, thorny glory.
One way of managing things with dark and light sides is to mythologize the dark; it’s a way of controlling it, making it attractive. New Yorkers still take huge pleasure in the image of this town as a violent, crime-riddled hellhole where only the tough survive, despite the fact that this is one of the safest large cities in the world. Perhaps my favourite of the city’s great propagandists was Damon Runyon, whose stories about the antics of charming petty criminals and hoodlums delighted me as a boy. Weegee, a darker contributor to the lore of Gotham, delighted me as an adult.
Usher Fellig – dubbed Weegee because of the Ouija board-like prescience that had him showing up at murder scenes often before the police – was a crime beat photojournalist who became world-famous during the 30’s and 40’s. His was the unflinching eye that splashed Skid Row murders and high society drunks in paddy wagons over the front pages of the morning paper. His photographs have a stark urgency that underscores one of the things that New Yorkers love most about their city: it’s realness. In this town, we abhor the inauthentic. For example, most of us despise the changes that have taken place in the Times Square and 42nd Street areas – it has been transformed from the gritty neighbourhood of the 70’s into our own little pocket of fake. We accept it because we understand that it wasn’t put here for us: it was put here for the tourists.
Weegee’s photographs – the line-ups of arrested transvestites, the children sweltering on a fire escape late on a roasting summer night, the bodies of the dead sprawled in doorways, on sidewalks on saloon floors – show the harsh conditions of real life in the real city. But they also bring to their subject the gloss of myth, the blessing of everlasting life, the confirmation of a moment as legend. Some of this is the gloss of time, certainly, amplified by the fact that his images were a visual touchstone for the brooding noir films that spread like black mold over the post-WWII American consciousness – it was, in fact, Weegee who coined the term “the Naked City”.
“I would drop into Police Headquarters at around 7:00 p.m. If nothing’s stirring and my elbow don’t itch – and that’s not a gag, it really does itch when something is going to happen – I go on back to my room across from Police Headquarters and go to sleep. At the head of my bed I have a hook-in with the police alarms and fire gongs so that if anything happens while I’m asleep, I’m notified…When I get my pictures I hurry back to Headquarters. There is always a follow-up slip on an accident (or crime) with all the names and details coming in over the teletype. I found out who were injured, where they lived, and on what charges they have been arrested, so that I can caption my pictures correctly. Next I go back to my darkroom and develop my prints. By this time it is around six in the morning and I start out to sell my prints.”
Weegee quoted in “Free-Lance Cameraman,” by Rosa Reilly, Popular Photography, December 1937
Here are a few of his iconic images:
Weegee actually played an important role in my life in New York City. When I first moved here in 1990, I knew no one. A couple weeks after my arrival, I saw an ad for an unusual item: someone was selling a Weegee portrait of the notorious pin-up model Betty Page. It turned out that the seller lived two blocks from my apartment; it also turned out that the photographer was the notorious glamour and fetish photographer Eric Kroll. When I arrived at his studio to see the print, I was met at the door by a corseted dominatrix; they were in the middle of a shoot. I watched until they finished, then the three of us pored over some of the domme’s clothing designs. And then we looked at the Weegee photo.
It was a wonderful afternoon, a signal moment in my life in the city, one of those days that underscore the whole “only in New York” thing – a forensic pathologist, a dominatrix and a naughty photographer having a convivial afternoon. I’d always assumed that my life in New York would be extraordinary, and barely a fortnight in, it was exceeding all my expectations.
I wasn’t sure I could afford the print; I said I’d think about it. A few days later, I called back and asked if I could have another look at the photograph. Eric invited me to his studio; this time, the door was opened by a woman naked except for a narrow leather belt and fetishy black leather pointe shoes with 7” tall heels. It was the sort of coup de théatre that I came to expect from Eric, a deliberate attempt at manipulation of one friend using a model or another friend. I’m a physician, and am completely used to naked bodies – Eric was expecting me to be flustered, or embarrassed or excited, but instead I found it amusing, and sweetly flattering.
So we became friends. For the next ten or so years, until Eric moved to the West Coast, I occasionally helped him with his shoots, helping move the lighting in his studio, schlepping equipment to professional dungeons and burlesque clubs around town. It was an interesting education, and had a huge and unexpected benefit: my first circle of NYC friends came from the city’s odd sexual demimonde – strippers, dominatrixes, pornographers – some of whom are still my closest friends today.
Here’s an interesting bit of lagniappe: the New York Times’ John Strasbaugh narrates a downloadable podcast walking tour of Weegee- related NYC sites.
GOD how I love Weegee's work, and I love living in NYC again even more–have only been back for three weeks, but after sixteen years in the hinterland wilderness, it is Nirvana to be back in my hometown. What a wonderful post, Jonathan–thank you!!
Cornelia – you might like that John Strasbaugh walking tour of Weegee's NYC. It's mostly Downtown, and it's cool to see both how much the city has changed, and how much it has stayed the same.
(Sorry, having a little difficulty figuring out the photo posting constraints of this blogging client. I've gone back and corrected images that were initially cropped as best I can.)
If a forensic pathologist says New York is relatively safe, that's good enough for me.
I've only visited a few times (once as an adult), and while I didn't (to my sure knowledge) meet any dominatrices, I did meet some delightful transvestites on the subway one night who helped me figure out how to get back to my hotel. Apparently, there's nothing like a protective escort of six-foot-plus, exquisitely-made up Amazons to make this five-foot-four Midwest tourist feel at home!
Damon Runyan remains a favorite of mine, propaganda or not. There's a touch of reality underneath that fine line of patter, and all those characters living by word of their own mouths.
Was Joe Pesci's Leon Bernstein (in The Public Eye) based on Usher Fellig? I remember Pesci raising his camera to a corpse and saying, "Toss in the hat—people like to see the guy's hat."
That was an absolutely fascinating post!
Even without 6' Glamazons flanking you, New York City is an amazingly safe place. Just don't buy or sell drugs, or join a gang.
Chevy Stevens! Thank you.
Eric Kroll remains one of my favorite photographers — his knack for capturing the whimsy in kink is unmatched, largely because everyone else focuses on the, well, kink. He undermines that in the most silly, spectacular ways. He's just plain f**king funny.
What a fabulous little tale of the city — and what a marvelously sweet, unguarded picture of Ms. Page.
Thanks for the great post, Jonathan, and especially the stunning Weegee photos. And for the observation that even by focusing on the real, photography can't help but mythologize. Interesting paradox, that. Flaubert said much the same thing about fiction.
This post reminds of the tug of a the bad boy lover that I know I can't live with but still has tons of allure. My sun sets on the ocean — born and raised on the West Coast but spent enough years in NYC to fall in love with it and I go about 3 times a year– just spent a week there, fabulous. Yours is a unique view where you really are looking under the sheets so to speak (from your first circle of friends, from Weegee's eyes and your own work). Loved the Weegee photos — something I had never seen, just makes me want that bad boy all over again. Great post.
Jonathan, you are like turning the page of an unread book. I never know what I'm going to discover.
When I lived in NYC (around 1990 sure enough), I'd go out with my camera, but, of course, I never caught shots like Weegee's. Always amazing. I also saw my share glamazon transvestities. I lived on W14th between 8th and 9th, and a crew of them would hang out on our stoop all night long. Fun times!
Jonathan, when I die, I want your life to pass before my eyes.
Louise, that's priceless.
It's been a pretty intense one, although not always an utter breeze.
Also, screw Flaubert! That mincing bastard has been stealing my work for too long!
Your quip made me laugh out loud, Louise. That's exactly what I was thinking (only not as funny).
Stark contrast to this writer's life. I got called this morning to go pick up my daughter from preschool to change her poopy bum. Good times.
I wonder if my kids would track me down if I moved to NYC.
Louise, love your comment and totally agree.
"Screw Flaubert" has to be one of the best murderati comments ever. This is a great post, and I love that Betty Page photo.
God, Jonathan! You gave all of this to us today for free? Taking the virtual walking tour right now! xo
I've always loved the Weegee photos. Oddly, though, I never knew about the old TV series The Naked City. When I was trying to find a title for my second book I latched onto the name because I thought it was a great way to describe San Francisco. T. Jefferson Parker told me that there was no way in hell I was going to call my book The Naked City because all the fans of the TV show would be pissed. I did some Googling and realized he was right. So the book became BEAT. I glad I ran into Jeff before finalizing the title!
Cool, blog today, Jonathan.
What a delightful bit of writing and photography Jonathon. Being both a photography buff as well as always embracing the theater that is NYC It was to me a special treat. The noir of weegee's images will never go out of date.
I love New York, and I love this post.
We had a classic only in New York experience on our first trip for BEA – a scenario that nearly turned nightmarish with some members of a less than savory group that operated in illegal ways. Actually, we were damn lucky it didn't go completely south. I actually wrote it all up as a book proposal, and those who read it shook their heads and said, "Won't work. No one would ever believe this could happen."
And yet, it did.
Yep. Only in New York.
Stephen, oddly enough I met Jeff just a couple weeks back at Bouchercon – a good guy.
I last saw Kroll this spring, when I went to The Poisoned Pen on my book tour for A HARD DEATH. He's living in his parents' former home in one of those plush golf course villages in Arizona. His neighbours are doubtless shocked when he opens his garage, piled high with his documents and collections of old photographs and corsets and whatnot. He's lined the walls with huge fetish posters, surely an eye-opener in that enclave. He is a bit of a rogue.
Kroll is one of those chance encounters who really shaped my life. Through him – or, to be more precise, through one of his friends, an alien abdcutee named Sam who came with Eric to my apartment one night, I got my start in journalism. Sam immediately got on my computer and signed me onto Echo, a small bulletin board in the early 90's. It had a cerebral leaning, and got a lot of literary types; my writing on Echo – just yammering about restaurants and movies – got noticed one day by a magazine editor, who asked me to write for her magazine. And from that assignment to other assignments, and on and on. Really, I owe Eric a large part of my social life, including the most important parts of my love life, and a good part of my writing career.
Of course, the rest I owe to NYC. I knew that if I came here, my life would be amazing. And it really kind of has been.
As we always used to joke about NYC, if you can make it here, who the fuck CARES where else you can make it?