Two very different books sharing a niche interest that will strike some as macabre: one concerns the work of an American freelance photographer, an ‘ambulance chaser’ who arrived at violent crime scenes with camera at the ready; the other offers psychoanalytic readings of British murderers on the basis of archival crime scene photographs taken by the police.
How Can I Too Become A Weegee?
Weegee: Murder Is My Business, Brian Wallis (Prestel, 2013)
Weegee and his ’38 Chevvy cruised the mean, dark streets of New York from the mid-1930s to the mid-’40s — working at night was his forte — with his fedora and tools of his trade on the front seat and accessories in the boot. His mission was film noir, literally: Arthur Fellig, known as Weegee, apocryphally for his psychic-like ability (as in Ouija board) to know where a crime had taken place, was a freelance photographer. He had the nose of a nocturnal trufflehound for what was pleasing and his dish of choice, served best whilst still warm, was homicide; preferably a mobster killing, though brawls, fires and grisly car crashes would do at a pinch – as long as a person, dead or alive, was in his frame. Often, he was indeed the first to arrive at the crime scene, sometimes before the cops, helped by having a police-band radio in his car and another in his one-room apartment situated very close to the Manhattan Police Headquarters. He worked with a cumbersome, large-format Speed Graphic camera – usually set at f/16 at 1/200 of a second with a set focus distance of ten feet — and, what was a fairly new piece of gear at the time, a large, bulbous flash. Nothing else was required, except his special pass issued by the New York Police Department that allowed him to cross police lines. After all, murder was his self-declared business and as he explained years later in an interview, ‘when you go out on a story, you don’t go back for another sitting. You gotta get it.’ And get it he did, time and time again, earning his living by selling to tabloid newspapers the kind of photographs reproduced in this book.
Nowadays, of course, a crime scene is strictly off-limits for press photographers and the generic kind of pictures the public are allowed to see have to be taken from behind the ubiquitous police line of coloured polythene tape. The close-up shots of suspects that could once be taken are now rare. One of the photos in Weegee: Murder Is My Business shows Anthony Esposito, a hoodlum probably but with his humanity on display, about to be booked on suspicion of killing an officer of the law in New York in 1941. He is handcuffed to one detective, is cut under one eye and his shirt is dishevelled, while the back of a second, broad-shouldered detective commands more space than the man in custody. Both lawmen have turned away from the camera to avoid their faces being shown.